It’s game on in Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle. In theaters now, this sequel updates and reinvents the 1995 original movie starring Robin Williams, with both films based on the children's book by Chris Van Allsburg.
Welcome to the Jungle finds four high school students from different cliques stuck in detention and cleaning out the basement storeroom. When the group stumbles across a vintage video game and begin playing it, they all get sucked into its virtual environment. Now, as their adult video-game avatars, these teenagers must rely on each other as they contend with gigantic animals, deadly traps and dangerous obstacles. Their goal: to complete a task and get out of the game. But if their avatars die, it’s also game over for them in the real world.
Screenwriter Jeff Pinkner, who is also co-writing Sony's Venom film with Scott Rosenberg, spoke with CBR about reimagining the Jumanji premise, mining video game tropes and harnessing the comedic energies of the cast.
CBR: When it comes to reimagining or reinvigorating a property, what are some of the things you were hoping to accomplish?
Jeff Pinkner: Well, with this one specifically, we wanted to retain the spirit and tone of the original. And, we wanted to make sure we were being respectful and paying homage to the original, which we all love. At the same time, if it’s not a reinvention or reimagination, there was no point to do it. The first one did what it did spectacularly well. Nobody was interested in a remake. There are instances, like The Thing, where a remake is incredibly viable, and you can reimagine something for a modern era. This was not one of those instances. This is a very specific movie, based on a beloved book, with a wildly beloved actor, Robin Williams. Nobody was interested in remaking this movie. That would have been wildly disrespectful and a waste of everybody’s time and energy. So, there was such a great idea of the characters and animals from this game coming out into this world. This was really an instance of, “How can we take the spirit and inspiration of that and tell an entirely different story?”
Once the blueprint for this movie had been established, what were the video game tropes you and co-writer Scott Rosenberg immediately wanted to mess around with?
We wanted to incorporate video game tropes in a fun way, but we wanted to approach the movie as if everyone watching the movie wasn’t a video game player. Case in point, the characters discovering a drop-down screen that indicates their strengths and weakness. As soon as it occurred to us, it seemed like such a fun idea and a fun use of current video game technology. We introduced a cut scene. Spencer, the kid who goes into Dwayne Johnson’s body, he’s the video gamer among them. He’s familiar with the tropes. He’s familiar with drop-down screens. He’s familiar with cut scenes. He’s familiar with levels. He’s familiar with the challenges that the game is likely to throw at him. Whereas, it’s new and a discovery for the other kids playing the game in the movie.
How dire do things get as the players progress along the levels?
Not only do things get more difficult, but there is a little bit of puzzling involved. There’s a little bit of strength needed to overcome things. There is teamwork. All of the strengths that the different characters embody come into play at different times. Part of the challenge for the characters is whose skill set needs to be employed when. A lot of it is trial and error, which also lends to the comedy. Like a video game, there’s a certain degree of Groundhog Day, of trial and error until you get it right. The consequence of getting things wrong is you die, and you have one life left.
What exactly are their skill sets?
Dwayne, whose avatar character is Dr. Smolder Bravestone, his skill set is sort of everything. He’s fast. He’s strong. He has incredible jumping strength. He smolders. Kevin Hart is his weapon’s guy. His skill set is he carries the backpack full of weapons, which doesn’t make him happy at all. His weaknesses are strength, speed and cake. Karen Gillan, who plays Ruby Roundhouse… among her skills are tai chi and dance fighting. For Jack Black, it’s a woman, Dr. Shelly Oberon, inhabiting his body. She’s a zoologist and cartographer. It’s sort the classic set of skills that you would have in a mid-'80s jungle adventure video game.
In what ways did the cast influence the script? Did you go back and punch up certain beats once they became attached to the project?
Typically, when Scott and I approach a movie, we write it with someone in mind, to some relatively specific voice. You won’t believe me, but we wrote this for Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart and Jack Black. There is always some fine-tuning when they are actually cast, and there was definitely some small degree of latitude for the actors to make it their own by improvisation, or through conversations with director Jake Kasdan, who is himself a tremendously brilliant writer and did a lot of uncredited work with Scott and I, and then on set. So, there was definitely a melding of the actors’ voices with the voices that were initially written into the script, but it didn’t take a lot because they were the ideals that we were writing for in the first place. And, the actors love each other. The chemistry on screen is so great because the chemistry between them is just insane. It’s like three points of an isosceles triangle.
Jumanji is an action-comedy. How hard was it to balance those two elements?
It all comes out of character. All of the comedy in the movie is organic to who the characters are, so, it wasn’t actually that complicated at all. There are comedic moments in the action. Jake would tell you this. The challenge is really to approach it as an action-comedy, neither as a comedy with action beats nor an action movie with comedy beats. Oddly, the video-game motif lends itself to a really solid foundation by way of movie structure. The characters have limited lives, like they do in video games. Losing those lives -- and stakes raising because of that and the idea that if they die in the game, they die in real life -- lends itself to movie structure, as do the levels they need to overcome along the way. The comedy is sort of pervasive throughout. We never approached it like, “OK, now it’s a comedy beat. Now, it’s an action beat and then a comedy beat.” They are both intertwined throughout.
What were your thoughts about leaving the door open for further installments?
I think we were conscious about making an ending that wasn’t sequel baiting. At the same time, the characters are so engaging that we would all be excited to do it again. But, we were being very conscious about not ending it on a cliffhanger or baiting a sequel for the audience.
Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is in theaters now.