Jurassic World: Chris Pratt's tricky beast of stardom

Jurassic World and Chris Pratt have has stomped across the box office this weekend

The numbers for "Jurassic World" impress on many counts. The second-biggest domestic opening in history at $204.6 million. The largest worldwide opening in history. Per-screen averages that keep pace with the packed-houses of the first "Jurassic Park."

Anchoring that success, of course, is Chris Pratt. Those words have been written a lot lately, and they don't feel any less strange each time out. One of modern Hollywood's more delicious aspects is its ability to create stars seemingly overnight. Few have been created faster than Pratt.

Just a couple of years ago, the 35-year-old was known primarily for his TV roles, as the angst-ridden Bright Abbott on "Everwood," or the slacker Andy Dwyer on "Parks and Recreation." His cinematic parts, when he had them, were small turns in big movies like "Moneyball" or bigger turns in small movies, movies so small they barely came out.

But the last 16 months have been heady for Mr. Anna Faris, who voiced Emmet Brickowski in "The Lego Movie," then appeared as Peter Quill/Star-Lord in "Guardians of the Galaxy" and, now, as dino-whisperer Owen Grady in "Jurassic World." Those films have all been hits — a total of $1.75 billion globally and counting. More important, they've been overperformers, including "Jurassic" last weekend, which some analysts thought wouldn't get to $150 million. The films far surpassed expectations, and Pratt has been the common element in them all.

The key question is whether Pratt made these hits as much as they made him. The movies, after all, had much to buoy them. All were beloved brands--Lego, Marvel and "Jurassic Park." And all had other strong factors that drew moviegoers: a quirky-cool word-of-mouth in the case of the first two and the whizbang special effects and heavy nostalgia quotient in "Jurassic." So has Pratt been driving the train? Or has he been simply lucky enough to board the right locomotives?

There's no easy answer. But the question can be contemplated in the context of the leading-man culture into which Pratt has arrived. Many of the stars who open movies these days come in a decidedly alpha tradition — a Vin Diesel or a Chris Evans or a Channing Tatum.

Pratt's appeal is, well, a more slippery beast. He has enough swagger to be mentioned in the vicinity of those actors but also a strain of goofiness that isn't found in most modern action heroes. And if Pratt, like the others, is not exactly a subtle craftsman, he possesses enough offbeat appeal to keep things surprising.

Most notably, in the era of Diesel and Tatum, he isn't them — a superstar who shines brighter precisely because he doesn't fit the mold, a kind of filmic Stephen Curry. (There are a number of parallels in their unlikely rise, and not only because this is being written as the Golden State Warriors are set to take the court--neither was given much quarter early in their careers, and both have found ways to use their against-the-grain skills to their advantage.)

Pratt's likably democratic persona, and back story, were captured by his famous remarks to his high school wrestling coach. "I was like, 'I don't know,'" he recalled he said when asked his life plan. "'But I know I'll be famous, and I know I'll make a ... ton of money.' "I had no idea how," he added. (He also, weirdly, seemed to predict his starring role in "Jurassic World" years ago.) When a colleague and I ran into Pratt in an elevator at the Toronto International Film Festival a few years ago, he was in a T-shirt, engaging in horseplay with Michael Cera. He seemed far more like those of us who cast a wry eye on a film festival as he did one of its central attractions.

That shrugging quality has fit these recent parts — a sideways hero in "Guardians," the holy fool nice-guy in "Lego" and even the intelligent-but-not-intimidating scientist in the latest hit."Jurassic World" in particular doesn't call for a sheetrock Messiah figure — not when the CG dinosaurs are the stars. Put a Diesel in the movie and the velociraptors may not have enough room to breathe. But drop in a Pratt, and things fit nicely. His down-to-earth qualities makes the peril more believable and the leadership more triumphant. He's the right hero for a cinematic moment when actors aren't the only heroes.

That can seem strange in a world that puts so much emphasis on celebrity. It's doubly weird given a longtime climate of specialization in Hollywood. Pratt is, at heart, a comedic actor camouflaged as an action star. But he subverts these questions--or, more accurately, renders them irrelevant. Less important than whether Pratt is a traditional leading man is whether such characterizations need to matter as much in the first place.

It's not clear that a lot of other actors will be able to erase these distinctions. The industry imperative, if not exactly the audience demand, is to silo actors in a given genre. But with Pratt reaching superstardom from an unlikely place, and looking effortless in doing so, it wouldn't be surprising if future box-office stars tried to follow his circuitous path.

Next for Pratt is the Antoine Fuqua-directed remake of "The Magnificent Seven," shooting in Louisiana. Pratt will play opposite titans such as Denzel Washington, not to mention against our memories of figures like Steve McQueen. These are all classic leading men, and Pratt isn't. But the actor will attempt to demonstrate that he belongs among them anyway. Like benign-seeming theme-park creatures, we underestimate him at our peril.


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