In case there’s still some lingering confusion about the proper status of the upcoming film Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle and how it relates to the 1995 film Jumanji starring Robin Williams, a cinematic experience hardwired to a generation’s childhood, let star Kevin Hart put as fine a point as possible on it.
“In no way, shape or form are we disrespecting or reshaping or reforming the original Jumanji,” said Hart while taking a break from shooting the film at Hawaii’s Kualoa Ranch on the island of Oahu (in the very same valley where Steven Spielberg shot scenes for Jurassic Park over two decades ago). “People think that this is a remake of the original Jumanji, and it’s not. It’s a continuation. You don’t touch what’s great and try to redo it.”
Instead, the new once flips the script: the original, directed by Joe Johnston, told the story of how Williams’ character Alan Parrish emerged after 26 years of being trapped in an otherworldly jungle realm he’d been imprisoned in while playing the enigmatic mystical board game Jumanji, which also unleashed many of its beastly denizens into Parrish’s family home, now populated by a new young clan who becomes embroiled in the resultant chaos.
The new story (helmed by comedy director Jake Kasdan making his first foray into action-adventure) drops its cast of young heroes directly into those previously unseen forests of Jumani, this time through a more modern take on gameplay: a video game. “There’s a generation that has no idea what Jumanji is,” said Hart of the shift of setting into a bigger, wilder and more dangerous setting. “So having that game and that world continue but fit this mold is something that we felt that we could bring a lot of light to.”
A lot of light: Hart and his co-stars Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Jack Black and Karen Gillan spent much of their days in the vast, sun-soaked expanse of Kualoa Ranch in running, jumping and even “dance-fighting” in full-on jungle gear. While the characters they play may actually be teenagers in detention, the all-star adult cast was tapped for their more mature and iconic qualities.
They’re actually video game avatars (hence the actual reason for Gillan’s much-discussed Lara Croft-ian wardrobe) embodying the kids trapped in the game – and usually to great ironic and comedic effect: Fridge, a popular and strapping jock finds himself trapped within Hart’s diminutive zoologist; Bethany, the luminous cheerleader, is stuck inside Black’s chubby, bookish professor; Martha, the studious wallflower, exists with the butt-kicking form of Gillan’s commando; and Spencer, the geeky gamer, finds himself powering Johnson’s muscular archeologist.
Welcome (Back) to the Jungle
All of principals involved in resurrecting Jumanji as both a direct and spiritual sequel – and a potential franchise – were well aware of the unique place the original held in the hearts of audience members of a certain age. “The challenge is to take something that’s beloved and present it in a way that is appealing to today’s audience,” said Johnson, who admitted that he and his family held the first film in particularly high regard. “What is the way that we can pay homage to the original movie – and not only to the original movie, but to Robin Williams – in a way that felt good and that made people feel good, but yet not get bogged down in it? I think we came up with some really nice ways to pay homage.”
Producer Matt Tolmach started the effort to breath new life into the property based on author Chris Van Allsburg’s 1981 children’s book. “I always loved the movie and read the book to my kid,” said Tolmach, who eventually recognized the first film’s diamond-in-the-rough qualities that could potentially translate into a major summer tent pole movie and proposed the idea to Sony Studios. “There’s just something so brilliant about this notion of a game, and specifically the idea of going into a game that I was always captivated by it. So [the studio] said ‘Yes, develop it – great idea, see where you end up.”
Over the course of a lengthy development process that went through many hands, Tolmach says it was screenwriter Chris McKenna who turned the key on the fresh new take. “He said ‘Sadly, not many people play board games anymore – we play video games, and it’s the perfect set up for this idea,’” recalled Tolmach. “He pitched me this Breakfast Club group of kids who get sent to detention and out of boredom or whatever find this game, and lo and behold, they fall into it.”
From there, the plan to connect the original film to the new one took shape – though exactly how is still being kept under wraps. “There’s a really acknowledgment in the movie, without giving away too many cool specifics of that transition,” said Tolmach.
“We’ve sort of always looked at it as another Jumanji adventure using a lot of the same mythology. I love the idea that Jumanji travels and it shows up in the world and it’s this magical thing and if you happen to find it on a beach, crazy shit will happen! It’s a completely different adventure than that, but it borrows from the fundamental mythology of the game.”
As the filmmaking team assembled, a common theme emerged: nearly everyone was a longtime fan of Jumanji, and they wanted to do right by it in the follow-up “I do have great affection for the original movie,” said director Kasdan. “It’s a really original, unique, unusual movie. I have always admired it a lot.”
“To me, the thing that is so powerful about the original – it has this tone that is unique for a kid’s movie,” Kasdan explained. “It’s like really scary – sort of surprisingly scary. It’s almost like a kids’ horror movie. You can hardly even think of anything quite like it….[There’s] this sense of the game that comes to life, and with it comes this deep sense of foreboding and dread. Every time they roll a dice in that movie, it’s like you hear the drums and what is about to happen and the events. We’ve used it now in the marketing a little bit: the game that plays you.”
“Honestly it’s in my top three films of all time. Of all time!” enthused Gillan. “I feel like in your top three you have to have a couple of films that you really respect and then one that’s like that special childhood nostalgia film – that’s what Jumanji is for me…I loved the whole concept it was really fun as a kid. I thought it was totally magical.”
And as the super-fan in the group, Gillan feels like she’s judging the new effort harder than most, “and it passes the test with me,” she said. “I was very protective over it as well because I just loved it so much, and I feel like it’s a great continuation and it’s going to live up to everything the first film set for it. Hopefully take it even further.”
“I’ve always wondered where Robin Williams’ character went for all of that time in the first one – it was sort of left to the imagination,” Gillan added. “That’s where this film comes in: we get to see exactly where he went and what it feels like and what it looks like. That’s the biggest difference.”
“I first saw the original when I was six years old – my grandfather picked it up at Blockbuster,” revealed Nick Jonas, who plays a still enigmatic character who joins the adventure in the jungle. “I re-watched it once I got this role while I was on tour over the summer. And it happened to be on TV when I was on the tour bus the day that I got the call that I got the role, so it was all kind of serendipitous.”
“The pitch kind of sold me,” said Jonas. “Once I heard that cast and I heard who was directing it, I knew there was going to be a lot of care for the original. And it is beloved and I think it’s something we all really want to do justice — so I knew there would be a lot of care there. So that fear was gone, and then I read the script and I kind of fell in love with the character, too…With this game and this world that we’re in, everything is not as it seems, so there’s a lot to be discovered.”
Only Black was among the Jumanji uninitiated. “I hadn’t actually seen the original until I read this script,” he admitted. “Robin Williams kicked so much ass! It’s right up there with my favorite Robin Williams performances because it’s perfectly suited to his strengths in that heightened reality. And that made me even more psyched to do this movie.”
“I thought what was cool about that first one was he’s in the game and he pops out of the game after 20 years, but you never see that: you’re never in the game in the jungle,” said Black. “And this time, we’re going into the game…The game itself evolves. It’s like the game is a living organism and it moves into current day where kids don’t play board games anymore. Kids are on their iPads and playing their video games. It morphs for the times.”
Aside from the physical locale, the biggest shift in the new Jumanji was adapting the game to the world of video games – and more specifically, ‘90s-era video games. “These are just like the video games of the 90s,” said Johnson. “So in the spirit of the board game of Jumanji, you’ll see in the creative device that we’ve used within the movie it morphs into. It goes on from the board game into the video game, but it still has the spirit of the 90s.”
Those nods to classic games of 20 years ago also come with very specific processes. “There are very definite rules, and the characters have to learn them as they go, and that’s part of the story,” Tolmach said. “They fall into this game and they don’t know what it is and initially you’re like ‘Okay, we’re in a video game…’ and then it’s ‘Well, how do you get out of here?’ and ‘What happens if I get eaten?’ and all of those things become a big part of what the journey is.”
“I’ve always felt that there really is a Wizard of Oz quality to this thing, and that means getting back to Kansas and you have to do very certain things, specific things, to get there,” Tolmach added. “That is part of the mythology they learn in the beginning, but then also they learn the hard way along the way…It sort of subverts what you think is going to happen in a traditional gamer sense.”
“Like in a video game, they re-spawn,” explained Kasdan. “It’s like they have a finite number of lives until it’s game over. It’s that sort of tension of having to complete the game and get to the end of the adventure before they run out of lives…Those are the stakes: how do you get to the end without expiring permanently? It was also a part of it that I loved.”
“We’re using those tropes and those rules,” Kasdan continued, “but we’re treating it in a way that is very realistic. We were in these places, very focused on making sure that the tactile reality of the movie really felt like you were actually there as opposed to feeling like you’re in a video game. There’s dirt and sweat, and when somebody gets hurt, it hurts and all of that stuff. It feels like a movie, looks like a movie, but it’s like a real-world representation of this video game.”
As in the original film, the greatest potential danger comes in the form of the menagerie of creatures that inhabit the jungle. “In our world of Jumanji, the animals are bigger, they’re meaner, they’re faster,” warned Johnson.
“They’re primarily working as the part of the obstacle, the threat,” Kasdan revealed. “They’re cursed and dangerous in our movie. There is some variation to that, and over the course of the movie there are animals that they have different relationships to. There’s a little less kind of animal as a sort anthropomorphic character than there was in the original movie, but we have tried to do the animals, really, in our own way that I think is worth getting excited about.”
“Obviously we’ve come a long way,” since the then-groundbreaking effects of the original, said Tolmach on the seemingly creature-less set during production. “Now we live in a world where almost anything is possible, digitally, and so of course you don’t see pens of albino rhinos and giant hippos and things like that on set – there’s going to be a heavy dose of CG in the movie, but we also want to going back to feeling like there is very real jeopardy in this movie. We wanted to lean as much as we could on practical danger, too.”
“It’s an action adventure but it is intense, with very real stakes,” Tolmach added. “And then you have Kevin and The Rock and Jack, so both from an action standpoint and a comedy standpoint we wanted to turn up the intensity a little bit and let these people do what they do. It’s very definitely PG-13, but I think it has a more of ‘You’re on the edge of your seat’ kind of adventure than the previous movie.”
Still, even with the mayhem of two Guardians of the Galaxy films under her belt, Gillan still has trouble envisioning herself as an action heroine. “I don’t know why I keep on getting cast in roles where I have to do so many action sequences,” she laughed, because honestly I got two left feet and I look like a piece of spaghetti trying to fight people but it keeps on happening. I feel like I’m getting better with each film that I do that involved this sort of stuff but I really enjoy it. I enjoy doing it – then my stunt double makes me look much cooler than I manage to make myself.”
So with all the considerable effort to make the new Jumanji feel of a piece with the original, can audiences also enter into the latest storyline having never seen the first one? “I think you can come into our movie and have a really good time regardless,” promised Kasdan, “but everyone should see the original just because it’s great. It will enrich your experience of seeing our movie, for sure.”
“I was addressing the kind of world expansion entirely as it pertained to taking elements from the original movie that I loved,” added Kasdan, “and bringing it into this completely new context: this mystical game that finds people who need it, and teaches them something about themselves that they didn’t realize they needed to learn by way of this kind of terrifying adventure. That part of it remains very much intact. I think we’re doing it in a different way, but it was the aspect of the original movie that I really loved and I was aware throughout, to me, that’s the soul of Jumanji.”