Why Disney's Original 'Jungle Book' Is Germany's Biggest Film of All Time

George Sanders - 'The Jungle Book'

Sanders’ upper-class accent and dry wit made him the prototype for dozens of British villains to come, most notably when he played the heartless tiger Shere Khan in Disney’s 1967 animated movie. Oddly, Sanders could have been brought up a Russian: he was born in Saint Petersburg, Russia (one biographer claimed his father was the illegitimate son of a court noblewoman) and his family only fled to England in 1917, when Sanders was 11. Despite acclaimed credits including 1950’s All About Eve, his life ended tragically when he committee suicide in 1971, writing, “Dear World, I am leaving because I am bored.”

How a cadre of 1960s cabaret artists and musicians turned a very loose translation of Disney's 1967 classic into a bigger hit than 'Titanic,' 'Avatar' or 'Star Wars.'

Jon Favreau's The Jungle Book did great in Germany on its opening weekend, pulling in $5.6 million on 655 screens with nearly half a million tickets sold, the best opening for one of Disney's classic reboots here since 2010's Alice in Wonderland. The film has grossed a total of $6.3 million in the territory so far.

But the new Jungle Book has a way to go if it's to catch Disney's 1967 original in the country.

The first Jungle Book, directed by Wolfgang Reitherman, is not just the most successful animation film in Germany. It's not just Disney's biggest-ever release in the country. In Germany, The Jungle Book (1967) is the biggest movie of all time.

Germans have bought 27.3 million tickets to watch the original Jungle Book in theaters, nearly 10 million, by admissions, more than Titanic, the second-most successful film here with 18.8 million tickets sold. Avatar is a distant third with 11.3 million. More than three times as many Germans have seen The Jungle Book in theaters than Disney's Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens, which sold fewer than 9 million tickets here. Outside the United States, (around 62 million tickets sold), nowhere has The Jungle Book done better.

German film statistics from the 1960s did not track box-office results, so it's impossible to make a direct comparison with later films but given the gap in ticket sales, and taking inflation into account, it's a safe bet The Jungle Book is the country's number one earner as well.

The film's amazing teutonic success story is attributable to talent and lucky timing, and of a group of irreverent German musicians and cabaret artists who freely adapted the original Disney songs to suit their generation.

It is, most of all, the story of Heinrich Riethmuller, the German composer and music producer who, after producing the German dub work for Disney's Mary Poppins in 1964, got offered the Jungle Book gig. For the first time, Riethmuller had full control: he wrote the German translation, adapted the film's songs and directed the dubbed version of the film.

“I don't tend to like dubbed versions, I prefer the originals, but in this case, in this one case, the German version is better,” says Daniel Kothenschulte, film critic for the Frankfurter Rundschau and one of the leading experts on animation film in Germany. “Riethmuller makes the song lyrics to The Jungle Book better than they actually were.”

Take, for example, Baloo's signature song: "The Bare Necessities." Riethmuller's German version, "Probiers mal mit Gemutlichkeit" (or, roughly translated, Try Taking it Easy), changes the original meaning, from “be satisfied with the simple things in life” to “chill out and you'll be happy.”

“The original version, by the American folk singer Terry Gilkyson, has a pretty conservative message, when you think of it, of making due with less,” says Kothenschulte. “Riethmuller's lyrics are more liberal and positive, they promise both freedom and comfort, the jungle as a sort of boundless utopia.”

It also helped that Riethmuller assembled a team of exceptional voiceover talents, many of them artists in their own right. Klaus Havenstein, who voiced King Louie, was a founding member of the pioneering German cabaret troupe Munchen Lach- und Schießgesellschaft. Edgar Ott, the voice of Baloo, was arguably the most famous voice in German children's films. In addition to the Jungle Book, he lent his dulcet tones to French cartoon hero Obelix and German animated elephant Benjamin Blumchen, as well as voicing several Disney productions, among them voicing the lead in Robin Hood (1973) and King Triton in the Little Mermaid (1989).

Before The Jungle Book, U.S. films tended to be dubbed into serious high German, with an emphasis on correct, received pronunciation. Riethmuller's translation, and his troupe's voiceover performances, embraced slang and local dialect, as well as irreverent humor. When The Jungle Book was released in West Germany on Dec. 13, 1968 (Disney took a full year to do the local version), this style was perfectly in tune with the country's swelling hippie counterculture. A generation of young Germans, many now with young kids of their own, were rejecting their parents' strict authoritarian ways.

The Jungle Book also filled a void in the German theatrical market, which in the late 1960s was dominated by adult fare, including a lot of low-budget, homegrown soft porn. Disney had a virtual monopoly on family-friendly films. In 1968, The Jungle Book was just about the only film in German theaters the whole family could enjoy.

Those baby boomers turned out in droves, making Jungle Book a hit. They did so again in 1979, and 1987, and 1993, and 2000, as Disney re-released the film in Germany.

The film has had a lasting impact on German film culture. In 2003, it was the only animated film included in list of 35 titles chosen by German filmmakers, critics, historians and educators to be part of an official film canon to be used by German schools and universities. Alongside other films in the canon —among them Shoah, Taxi Driver, Vertigo and Fritz Lang's M—The Jungle Book stands out.

“There's no child who doesn't immediately love Baloo, who doesn't grin watching the vain (elephant) Colonel Hathis or recognize British colonial posturing behind Shir Khan's slippery snobbery,” wrote film critic Cristina Moles Kaupp in her official defense for including the film in the cannon. “Even now, The Jungle Book enchants...the young with its dazzling colors and simple plot, grown-ups with the wonderful songs and phenomenal characters, which let one see past the film's many antiquated clichés, including its depiction of women. ”

Disney was so impressed by the German version of The Jungle Book, it hired Riethmuller to rework the dubbed version of previous releases, including Bambi, Dumbo, Pinocchio, The Lady and the Tramp and 101 Dalmatians, all of which were successfully re-released in German in the 1970s and 1980s. (A footnote to The Jungle Book's German success: the film's director, Wolfgang Reitherman, who also helmed 101 Dalmatians, Aristocats and Robin Hood, was himself German, born in Munich in 1909).

Kothenschulte argues those Disney films, adapted by Riethmuller, set the template for what works in Germany when it comes to animated movies.

“Light, funny stories with talking animals, that's basically what works here. Animation for grown-ups, or anything too dark, has a hard time,” he says. “German audiences just want The Jungle Book, over and over again.”

Even the original has lost little of its appeal. The Jungle Book had its free-TV premiere in Germany only in 2014, 46 years after its original release. It drew 5.3 million viewers, a phenomenal 16.1 percent of the viewing audience.

Ironically, all that could work against Favreau's new Jungle Book in Germany.

Kothenschulte is one of many German critics who took the 2016 film to task for being significantly different, and significantly darker, than the 1967 version, suggesting that could turn off German families with young children.

The new film is still a hit but, in Germany at least, it won't be replacing the original as king of the jungle anytime soon.