The Jungle Book (2016)

The Jungle Book (2016)Today is May 11th, 2016, the 132nd day of the year. In those just-over-100 days a small little company called Disney — heard of it? — has made more money than any single company has any earthly right to make. Not since the Dutch East India Trading Company has a multinational firm held such widespread influence. Disney’s always been a successful company, sure, and even if they had fiscal years of lesser oomph they always had sheer name recognition to fall back on. In a bygone era every kid knew about Disney; today, though, we’re headed toward the era where every kid knows only Disney.

If that post-apocalyptic fever dream of a world seems far-fetched, consider how many of the blockbusters busting the block this year were preceded by that little star making an arc over the Magic Kingdom. Zootopia, for example, which is an animated film about talking animals, is currently hovering above the $930 million mark at the global box office. It is already the highest-grossing animated Disney film ever in China, surpassing even the likes of Frozen and The Lion King, and is in general doing work at the box office as few animated films have done before. Ever.

This past weekend Captain America: Civil War came out stateside, promptly scoring the fifth-highest domestic opening weekend ever and pushing the global box office (as of today) to nearly $700 million. Then, of course, there’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Though the lightsabers started swinging back in December of 2015, approximately $300 million of the total haul for Force will have been contributed by screenings in 2016 — and that’s just domestic screenings.

Suffice it to say that Disney’s movie division is doing fairly well, and suffice it to say that by the time you open the calculator app on your phone to try to tally up Disney’s total earnings thus far Disney will already have trumped the number you come up with. Box Office Mojo reported just yesterday on Disney’s impressive record of topping $1 billion in domestic ticket sales in a measly 128 days. But that was four whole days ago — and, again, that’s just domestic screenings.

The ringer in all of this is The Jungle Book, which is doing for Disney what Jurassic World did for Universal last year: surprising everyone. Everyone expected Force Awakens and Civil War and even Zootopia to do well, though the latter certainly exceeded expectations. Jurassic and Jungle, though they’re recognizable names expected to perform well upon release by catering simultaneously to both young and adult audiences, outperformed even the most liberal estimates in their respective opening weeks. Jungle Book became the biggest American film ever to open in India within days of its release. It had the second-highest April opening ever and the fifth-highest Spring opening ever, and the fact that it was knocked out of the #1 slot by Captain America probably isn’t causing Disney — who owns both — any worries or strife. In terms of box office, Jungle Book is the real success story out of Disney’s 2016-so-far films.

Unlike Jurassic World, though, Jungle Book deserves almost (almost) every penny. The former cashed in on nostalgia and Chris Pratt and failed to deliver a truly worthy experience, chock full of CG dinosaurs that were somehow far more emotive and personable than the actual people. It was painfully obvious that someone forgot what made Jurassic Park great, that being the exploration of the human element in nature’s grand plan; turns out you actually need a handful of humans that you give a shit about to explore that.

Or just one. The Jungle Book is anchored by young newcomer Neel Sethi, who does well enough in his blockbuster debut to make one hope against all hopes that this won’t be the peak of his career. But more important to Jungle Book‘s success (as a film, not necessarily as a box-office boon) is the incredible, intimate characterization of the other players in the film, all of whom are entirely CG animals and none of whom feel half as flat as Pratt or Vincent D’Onofrio from Jurassic World. Shere Khan is motivated and lovably despicable, Bagheera is steadfast and noble, Baloo lazy and still noble, King Louie a seedy New York mob boss. They’re the same characters from the animated Disney original but each with a fresh twist.

Which highlights the thing Disney did unequivocally right with the likes of Force Awakens, Zootopia, Civil War and Jungle Book, and that’s casting. These movies aren’t just well-cast — they’re perfectly cast. There are a hundred guys who could make Baloo a lovable oaf, but Bill Murray is Baloo. It’s true of all of these films. Ben Kingsley is the best possible Bagheera, Jason Bateman is the best possible Nick Wilde, and Tom Holland — yes, dammit — Tom Holland is the best possible Peter Parker. Disney is at the point where they can do more than get a big name to play a gigantic talking monkey, instead getting Christopher Walken to play King Louie because of course you get Christopher Walken to play King Louie.

One noteworthy difference is that Jungle Book and Civil War deal with well-established character while Zootopia and Force Awakens are largely populated by fresh faces. The point stands, though, because Daisy Ridley and John Boyega aren’t Daisy Ridley and John Boyega anymore — they’re Rey and Finn. Simply put, these are all characters we end up loving by the end of their allowed two-hour jaunts. They make us root for the films and line up to see the next one, and so if Disney can attribute their present success to one thing, it’s casting.

“…the next one…” is a fact of the matter in this particular case, with Jungle Book 2 an inevitability. Disney’s also making a franchise of sorts out of their cartoon classic catalogue, from Jungle Book to Beauty and the Beast to Dumbo to Mulan to Pinocchio. Nearly a dozen have been announced, and the only one in production (Beast) has a killer cast that includes Emma Watson, Dan Stevens, Luke Evans, Ewan McGregor, Ian McKellan and more. Do we need a Jungle Book 2? Of course not. This film is extremely well-made, guided by Jon Favreau to appeal to audiences of all ages, and according to the box office he did his job — but none of that means Jungle Book 2 will be a story worth telling. Still, if it’s cast as well as everything else Disney’s been producing lately, who am I to resist?

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