Few companies throughout the history of the world have been so shameless in their pursuit of the almighty dollar as the Walt Disney Company. After breaking the mold in 1934, Disney has never shied away from creative marketing and release strategies to wring every last dollar out of its most beloved pieces of intellectual property. Each week, we’ll look at the House of Mouse’s various sequels, prequels, spin-offs and various misadventures relegated from the silver screen to the small screen. Is there any artistic merit to be found? Or was each film mostly conceived as an excuse to print more money? Join me as we search for the answers from the wonderful world of Di$ney.
Why does this exist?
Folks, let’s be honest. If it wasn’t abundantly clear already, the bar for quality of Disney’s direct-to-video films is much, much lower than that of a theatrically released film. If you find that hard to believe, simply watch The Jungle Book: Mowgli’s Story, and you’ll see what I mean. The film feels like more of a product of its time than any other film we’ve covered so far, which is ultimately what kills any excitement for it beyond it being a sideshow horror-fest.
Any time somebody asks me for parenting advice, I tell them that kids love talking animals, as evidenced by the abundance of films in the genre, from the Homeward Bound series to the Dr. Dolittle and Air Bud franchises. However, it’s much more difficult by design to make a talking animal film that doesn’t look cheaply made and even more difficult when working within the budget of a direct-to-video production.
What’s most baffling about the road to production for Mowgli’s Story is that Disney had just produced a similar live-action adaptation of The Jungle Book only four years earlier in 1994. Mowgli’s Story is clearly aimed at a younger generation, and the result is a painfully cringe-worthy experience.
What’s going on here?
After the initial gobsmack reveal of Fred Savage as the narrator, the most notable element of the film reveals itself within the first few minutes, as the filmmakers eschew any kind of Mr. Ed-style visual trickery. The film never tries to imitate live animals moving their mouths or use CGI, instead resorting to voiceover performances for any animal dialogue.
And man, that dialogue sucks.
By the late 1990s, Disney had carved out a solid reputation, especially on the Disney Channel, for groan-inducing jokes crafted to play to the rafters and appeal to the kids in the broadest possible way. At one point, Baloo the bear (voiced by Brian Doyle-Murray) busts through a door, where he proceeds to utter: “Now that’s what I call crashing a party.”
Beyond that, the film’s treatment of Mowgli (Brandon Baker) as a kind of alien inhabiting a human’s skin makes a thin bit of sense as he tries to find his place in the world. But the way the character is written, it just comes off as bizarre and misguided. Consider the scene where Mowgli discovers his dead wolf mother and is genuinely confused about what tears are and why they’re painful.
The film concludes with Mowgli finding a tome and positing that it “must be some kind of jungle book, huh?” Lines like this are forgivable in a cartoon where everything is heightened a little but come off as borderline criminal in a live-action film. If it were covered under my insurance, my phone would have been thrown out the window at this point.
How much of the original is preserved?
The boldest decision Disney made when producing this film was not to make a full-fledged sequel, but a live-action version of the same story. Some plot developments are altered slightly, like introducing Mowgli as a boy rather than an infant. These feel less like an inventive way of altering the story and more like a practical way to film a live human interacting with potentially dangerous animals. Fortunately, the film never tries to justify inserting the original songs and simply references titles like “The Bear Necessities” in the most egregiously awkward ways. Unfortunately, we instead get sequences like “Monkey Time.”
Does this ruin the original film?
The 1967 animated film won’t be considered a Disney classic by any stretch of the imagination — especially by yours truly. But by essentially re-telling the same story, Mowgli’s Story fails to make a case for its own existence. Having the film on a streaming service, where it takes up the same real estate as the original film, threatens to overtake it in our collective consciousness.
Visually, the film looks worse than Honey, We Shrunk Ourselves despite relying solely on practical effects. The “jungle” looks like the film crew had access to Disney’s Animal Kingdom theme park after hours, and the animals’ “interactions” surely couldn’t have taken more than a couple days to film.
Kaa the python and King Louie the orangutan — two of the most entertaining characters in the animated film — are notably absent this time around. Not that I’d want to see a real 10-year old interacting with a live python; I would surely be too terrified of impending disaster in every scene to focus on anything else.
Disney would later remake The Jungle Book in 2016 featuring a blend of live-action and CGI characters, which would go on to win an Oscar for Best Visual Effects. There will always be defenders of the 1967 version, and there are surely more stories to tell with these characters, but it’s safe to say that we can turn the page on Mowgli’s Story without looking back.
- Next Time: Would you believe me if I told you that less than one month later, Disney would go from the worst to the best (so far) with The Lion King II: Simba’s Pride?