Honestly, I’m not really a big fan of “think pieces,” but I’m surprised there hasn’t been more written about Sony’s blockbuster hit JUMANJI: WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE beyond its box office success, because there’s so much to talk about.
The first question on my mind (as is on the mind of anyone who has seen and enjoyed Jumanji) is “When is Sony going to announce a sequel?” When a movie does that well, and definitely much better than expected, any other studio would already be setting up frantic meetings to figure out how to get rolling on the best sequel possible as soon as possible. For any sequel or franchise to work, it’s important to keep all the pieces in place – something learned the hard way by the Fast and Furious franchise, who brought Johnson on board to save it, remember. (Plus he’s even getting a spin-off movie for his character, because Johnson is golden right now.) With Jumanji, we’re dealing with a lot of very busy pieces especially the prolific Dwayne Johnson and Kevin Hart, each of whom make three or more movies a year.
I’ve been writing about Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle for almost a month now, mostly about its box office, and having seen the movie three times, even I’m amazed by how well it’s doing and how it’s connecting with moviegoers in a way we haven’t really seen since maybe Wonder Woman last summer. It’s a bonafide sensation.
If you don’t know the general premise (which means you haven’t seen the movie yet… tsk, tsk), it involves a group of disparate high school kids put into detention and forced to clean a room in the school that clearly no one has been in for a while. While there, they discover a video game console and a game called “Jumanji” which they decide to play, each of them picking an avatar based on their name. The game then transports them to the land of Jumanji, a dangerous jungle environment full of savage animals and gun-toting mercenaries on motorcycles.
That’s all you really need to know about the movie, but it’s a fairly simple premise that’s taken into amazing places by director Jake Kasdan (Bad Teacher) and the writers on the film, places few are ever expecting. When talking about why I personally liked the movie, I can only go by my own personal tastes and preferences, which are admittedly stranger and quirkier than the next critic you might run into on the street. Obviously, having the likes of Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Jack Black, Karen Gillan and Nick Jonas mixing it up on screen is probably why so many people are loving the movie, but there’s more to it than just those popular stars.
I’ve written quite a bit over the years about video game movies and why they fail to connect with either fans of the games or those unfamiliar with them. Jumanji seems to have some real gaming knowledge behind its storytelling, especially with the way the character’s avatars can view their specific skills and weaknesses. (This is used in a very clever and funny way throughout the movie.) This may sound like a really simple thing that most video game movies never have thought of doing. Instead, they’re always trying to make us believe that the concept of the video game is happening in the real world. I’m sure the upcoming Tomb Raider is going to have the same problem because it’s going to try to make us think that Alicia Vikander’s Lara Croft is a real treasure hunter, but then it will probably involve a lot of outlandish action set pieces more appropriate for a video game where the player has some control over what happens. (That’s one of the biggest things lacking from video game movies, the ability to choose what the hero or heroine will do next.)
Jumanji never pretends that the kids playing the game in the bodies of their avatars really believe they’re those characters – they just want to survive and get home — so the video game aspects of the movie are always handled in a fun, tongue-in-cheek way that builds upon the reason why video games can be so addictive.
Kasdan does a great job playing on these video game aspects of the movie, even throwing a quick but very funny Pitfall gag using Jack Black, who appeared as a youth in the original commercials for the Atari 2600 classic. I doubt many kids will have caught that, and maybe not so many adults either, but it shows that the people involved with making Jumanji know enough about gamers and gaming that they can throw something really subtle into the mix to win gamers over.
It’s obvious that Sony knows they have something big with Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle and the potential for a franchise, but I’m sure Tom Rothman and the other creatives involved are going to take their time and make sure they’re making a sequel for the right reasons… MONEY! No, that’s a joke, but obviously they can’t repeat what they did already, but they first need to figure out an organic and pracical way to bring the main cast back (who remember, are playing avatars in a specific video game), because that’s the only way a sequel to Jumanji could be a hit.
But where do you go with them? There are a number of anticipated sequels coming out this year, including Deadpool 2, The Incredibles 2 and Ralph Wrecks the Internet: Wreck-It Ralph 2 (and especially that last one) that will try to surpass the potential and inevitable “sequelitis” by creating something new and original and exciting without completely retreading what worked so well in the original movies.
With Jumanji approaching $300 million domestic sometime next week, maybe we’ll hear Sony’s plans for a sequel, or at least the studio should grab a holiday release date unencumbered by a Star Wars or Avatar movie, not that having a Star Wars sequel in theaters did much to hurt Jumanji doing as well as it’s done.
Edward Douglas | East Coast Editor