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Sandcastle Studios’ “Jungle Beat: The Movie,” produced in collaboration with South Africa’s Sunrise Productions, had big theatrical plans for its post-festival life. But all that changed when the world went into lockdown in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“When the pandemic came, we realized theatrical wasn’t going to happen, so we started thinking about putting it on VOD,” Sunrise founder Phil Cunningham told Variety in a call ahead of the film’s June 15 Annecy world premiere.

“But then the big question became, how are people going to know about it?” he asked.

In choosing to distribute themselves, Sandcastle also picked up the responsibility of marketing the film. And, while they did employ some traditional marketing practices, most of their publicity efforts went to identifying and contacting influencers whom they felt represented the values of the company as well as the “Jungle Beat” franchise and who themselves enjoyed the film.

A VOD distribution plan also allowed the film to be marketed as “Planet Earth’s first global movie night,” according to writer-director and series creator Brent Dawes, himself a father who knows the struggle of trying to find content that appeals to all members of the house.

While many around the world are familiar with the “Jungle Beat” series, to the tune of 3.25 million YouTube channel subscribers, for Sandcastle, a “Jungle Beat” feature has been a long time in the making.

“Our passion is story, that’s why we got into animation 20 years ago, and the best form of storytelling is feature film,” said Cunningham. “With this film we finally reached the point with the brand where we could look these characters in the face and turn it into a bigger story.”

Dawes was equally enthusiastic about bringing the IP – started years ago as an animation test to try putting hair on a monkey – into the world of feature animation, and felt it was important to get the timing right.

“‘Jungle Beat’ was always a TV property, and we always seemed to over-deliver for TV because we were prepping for a feature film,” he recalled. “About nine years ago, Phil asked me to start thinking about a ‘Jungle Beat’ feature film, and the film I had in mind then was quite different to the film we made.

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Phil Cunningham and Brent Dawes Sandcastle Productions

“We are a different studio than we were nine years ago, and the brand has evolved,” he went on. “If we’d made a feature nine years ago, it would have cost us a lot more money and we wouldn’t have the quality we’ve achieved with this film.”

Dawes also explained that had the movie been made nine years ago, he probably wouldn’t have included the single biggest departure for the IP. Whereas the animals of “Jungle Beat” the series have always had human-like qualities, they’ve never talked before. In the feature however, Mukey, Trunk, Humph and the other creatures of the jungle cross paths with Fneep, a visitor from the stars who carries with him a special orb that allows them to do just that.

Dawes admitted that there may be an initial shock to long-time fans of the series.

“Our characters didn’t talk, and that’s part of why it’s traveled so well. The language of the show is heart and humor, it’s not spoken,” he said, before pointing out that lessons learned over the years of making a dialogue-free series meant that those qualities, the heart and humor of the IP, are present in abundance throughout the film.

“I started reading and when I got to the alien bit, I couldn’t believe it,” remembered Cunningham. “But it was awesome because it gave the characters the opportunity to speak, and also gave us an opportunity to build a whole world that can be bigger in scale and suited feature film.”

For much of the “Jungle Beat” animation team, the feature provided an enthusiastic break from the earthy tones and natural landscapes of the series. For the audience, that translates into an appealing contrast between bright, shiny colors and design of the sci-fi alien tech and the natural look of the forest and animals that fans of the series will be accustomed to. Although the film’s lighting and visuals are a noticeable step forward for the “Jungle Beat” universe.

For such a well-established IP, it seems a safe bet then that “Jungle Beat: The Movie” won’t be the end of the story.

“We want to make another movie if this one works,” Cunningham said. “But it has to come from a creative place, it can’t be derivative. We want it to be a step forward, so we’ll only do it if we have a winner of an idea.”

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Jungle Beat Sandcastle Productions