The Jungle Book has roared into the box office with an opening domestic weekend of $103.5 million, making it the second-biggest April opening of all time. At time of writing, the CGI masterpiece had hauled in a tiger's share of the cash with $338 million worldwide. The climb shows no signs of slowing.
The incredible success of the movie relies on the eternal power of the original story. Not the 1967 Disney feature The Jungle Book, but the 1894 collection of short stories with the same name by Rudyard Kipling. The use by Disney of the time-worn tale reflects the studio's dependancy on centuries-old stories for their movies. Their animation draws particularly from fairytales — there would be no studio were it not for their use of ancient fables of fairies, magic and monsters.
The new movie relies at heart on the novel for inspiration. Original features in the book include Mowgli (pronounced like now-glee and nicknamed 'Mowgli the frog') being butt-naked throughout; he matches animals' physical aptitude and has the benefit of greater intelligence; Bagheera has a more equal relationship with him; Shere Khan is not the most threatening enemy and Kaa actually saves Mowgli's life several times. While there have been many changes in the movies, there are obvious parallels.
Here is a list of Disney features based, at least in-part, on ancient fairy yarns:
- Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937)
- Pinocchio (1940)
- Cinderella (1950)
- Alice in Wonderland (1951)
- Peter Pan (1953)
- Sleeping Beauty (1959)
- The Little Mermaid (1989)
DuckTales the Movie: Treasure of the Lost Lamp (1990)
Beauty and the Beast (1991)
- Aladdin (1992)
- Mulan (1998)
- Chicken Little (2005)
The Princess and the Frog (2009)
- Tangled (2010)
- Frozen (2013)
- Gigantic (to be released 2018)
While these are by no means all of the Disney movies, they form a chunk whose success provided a bedrock of money and reputation essential for the studio's front-runner position today. The traditional leaning stretches back as far as 1937 with Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, the first American animation feature ever. It was considered a massive gamble at the time, with critics predicting it tolled the end for the studio. Walt was even forced to mortgage his house to fund the production costs of $1.4 million, a record-breaking figure at the time. He had the last laugh by making $418 million worldwide.
How did Snow White pull off such an astonishing success? Like The Jungle Book, the tale - of the poisoned girl and her little men - has origins that stretch back far beyond the 20th century. Variations range from a Malay tale called Bidasari from 1750 about a wicked stepmother; to a 16th-century German countess called Margaretha von Waldeck who, after falling in love with a prince, was poisoned by her malicious stepmother. The secret of success by provenance held true for all the others in the list, too.
Their stories were already famous. They had been accepted and honed by being passed by word of mouth or through books like Grimm's Fairytales through the centuries. So Disney's first cartoon features, though animating the tales for the first time, were a form of sequels. From a business perspective follow-ups are guaranteed winners because of the ready-made audience who enjoyed the predecessor. The likes of Pocahontas, Mulan and Frozen opened to millions of parents and children who already knew the characters, plot and tone. Many would have recognised the story without even knowing it: new movies relied on classic plots like the undying motif of a hero rescuing a damsel in distress.
Spoonful Of Sugar: Walt The Businessman
Other than being a magical story-weaver, Walt was a shrewd businessman. Snow White had the foundation of a safe bet. Disney didn't use a new storyline because it would have probably been too radical a shift for an audience unused to animation, it being the first cartoon feature. Using the princess and her wicked stepmother reassured the conservative side of viewers that what they were going to see would be familiar. So he introduced people to groundbreaking feature animation by slipping it into cinemas under the guise of a traditional story. The fairytale was essential for Snow White to work.
The same is true of The Jungle Book. It drew from a classic story, now known via the 1967 movie as well as the book, to usher audiences into theaters. People like what they already know. Parents grew up with The Jungle Book. Recent predecessors like Maleficent, Alice in Wonderland and Cinderella who used similar blend of live-action and CGI were slated for the green screen having a tangible presence in the actors' unfocused eyes and reactions. But The Jungle Book director Jon Favreau has confidence in its saturation of special effects (which are actually stunning) because of the old storyline. It channeled the same tropes of escapism and idealism already familiar to people from the book and '67 picture and revitalized them. There is definitely a responsibility in handling timeworn material - these productions will always draw the anger of traditionalists who loved the original, but to criticise the new movie they would have to pay for a cinema ticket first.
Tale As Old As Time
The timelessness of the stories meant Disney wouldn't appear dated. Ever. Walt ensured his film's immortality, and thus his brand's, by using stories that had already weathered the centuries. The hand-drawn cels in Pinocchio look clunky compared to the nine million giraffe hairs in Zootopia, but the plot remains contemporary — almost all of those in the list above remain household names. Other 1940s animation blockbusters are unheard of today — Gulliver's Travels, Heavy Metal and The Three Caballeros. No, me neither.
The content was easily adaptable to contemporary requirements -- it was easy to update them for the audience of the time. And they weren't copyrighted (hence the Warner Bros. version coming out in 2017). This year's The Jungle Book has never looked more modern because, aside from stunning virtual imagery, there are key plot edits like character overhauls; as well as using an all-star cast of Scarlet Johansson, Idris Elba and Bill Murray.
The Circle Of Life
Does it matter that Disney isn't branching out into new areas? With Favreau's work they are relying instead upon previously visited source material and not proposing a new storyline. They are like Blade, Batman, Ben Hur, The Blob, The Birds and the 102 other reboots currently dusting themselves off (that's just some of the Bs). If the new movies are good, it doesn't matter at all. The new Jungle Book looks nothing like the old one. It didn't score an almost perfect rating on Rotten Tomatoes on merit of nostalgia alone, but by creating something intrepid and unique.
It's almost impossible to avoid ancient storylines. In The Seven Basic Plots book Christopher Booker ventures the idea that every tale in the world can fit into just seven types. You don't have to agree with that definition, but the idea underlines how common tropes swing through stories regardless of how new they are. They repeat themselves in the circle of life. Disney creates beautiful movies that many people love. I hope they create 10 more Jungle Books.