A prequel of sorts, the wordily titled “Rudyard Kipling’s The Second Jungle Book: Mowgli and Baloo” is a brisk, mildly diverting Indian safari with fleeting kid appeal. And if familiarity doesn’t breed contempt in this outing, neither does it elicit a great deal of ardor. Programmer should service theaters well (particularly for weekend matinees) until more potent commercial fare sweeps in for the summer. The monkeyshines and other animal antics promise strong cassette sales and reasonable response from cable outings.
Set in India (but filmed in Sri Lanka) circa 1890, the yarn finds preteen jungle boy Mowgli (James Williams) stumbling into the human world and being pursued as the next curiosity for the P.T. Barnum circus. Barnum scout Harrison (Bill Campbell) — an Indiana Jones look-alike — enlists local grandee Buldeo (Gulshan Grover) to help track Mowgli down. But while Harrison’s host seems affable, in fact he harbors malice: The boy is likely his nephew, the sole legal block to Buldeo’s gaining control of his late brother’s fabulous estate.
In addition to the two men, the motley crew consists of Karait (Dyrk Ashton), a tracker whose bloodhound is a python; and con man Chuchundra (David Paul Francis), whose pilfering monkey has attached himself to the fleeing boy. The rest is relatively predictable, fraught with chases, life-endangering perils, attacking animals and low comedy that relies on unfortunate racial and cultural stereotyping.
Those familiar with the Kipling saga will be most impressed with the manner in which the story’s animal characters — the ursine Baloo, black panther Bagheera and Grey Wolf — have been incorporated into the narrative. While one can see the outlines of several matte shots, most of the action between man and beast looks real, and the nonhumans are wonderfully shot by Adolfo Bartoli to emphasize idiosyncrasies.
The mortals are less fortunate, with Francis reduced to a bumbling Peter Sellers type and Ashton’s snake guy emerging as a much better side-show prospect than the boy. Roddy McDowall pops up as a crazed captive of a chimp colony for no apparent plot purpose. Williams is a very serviceable Mowgli, even if his bloodline to Buldeo seems suspect.
Director Duncan McLachlan has a pleasant, unobtrusive visual style, though his pacing tends to be dull and clunky. “The Second Jungle Book” doesn’t compare favorably with other Kipling movies. While told with great alacrity, it’s really a vignette better suited to a smaller medium.