Welcome to the Jungle: Moviegoers return to the world of 'Jumanji' in Jake Kasdan’s action comedy

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Full disclosure: Interviewing Jake Kasdan, it was tough not for me to eschew questions in favor of quoting lines from his 2007 satirical masterpiece Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, one of the most underrated comedies to come out in the last ten years. What can I say? Kasdan knows his comedy. The jack of all trades—director/producer/writer, probably craft services at some point—reunites with Walk Hard distributor Sony for his latest, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, which eschews the director’s typical R-rated milieu for something a bit more in the PG-13 arena. “There was a moment when I was like, ‘This is not only the first thing I’ve ever made that kids might like, it’s the first thing I’ve ever made that kids would even be allowed to see,” says the director. “Certainly my kids!”

If lacking some of the, er, risqué quality of earlier features Walk Hard, Sex Tape, Bad Teacher, The TV Set and Orange County, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle still allows Kasdan’s comic sensibilities to shine through. It’s based, after all, on a not-funny kids’ movie from 1995: Joe Johnston’s Jumanji, about a magical board game that releases all manner of dangers—quicksand, giant mosquitos, a stampede—into the real world. (That movie was based on the Caldecott Award-winning picture book by Chris Van Allsburg.)

This time around, we’re looking at a videogame, not a board game. And our four heroes get sucked in, instead of all manner of beasties being let out. In-game, nerdy Spencer (Alex Wolff) gains a ton of muscle mass as the beefy Dr. Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson). Football star Fridge (Ser'Darius Blain) loses a few feet to assume the form of diminutive sidekick Moose Finbar (Kevin Hart). Wallflower Martha (Morgan Turner) becomes badass man-killer Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan), while popular girl Bethany (Madison Iseman)—like, OMG, ew—finds herself inhabiting the body of middle-aged cartographer Professor Shelly Oberon (Jack Black). Want to get back to the real world? You have to work together and beat the game.

If Kasdan enjoys comedy, he doesn’t just enjoy comedy—and the opportunity to explore other areas of filmmaking through Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle was one he relished. “It’s the first thing I’ve made in a really long time where we haven’t been at least trying to get a laugh three times a scene,” he explains. “There’s a lot of comedy, obviously, and I hope that people think the movie is really funny. But there’s also some tension and some drama, and there’s actual action. That was an expansive, great experience, just to be able to shoot other kinds of scenes.”

“Really funny”: Check. It’s hard for comedy not to shine through, with the cast Kasdan has assembled. Jack Black and Kevin Hart are “two absolute comedy all-stars,” per Kasdan. Karen Gillan’s not yet as well-known as her co-stars outside the nerd set—her biggest roles to date have been in “Doctor Who” and the Guardians of the Galaxy movies—but among “people who pay attention to who’s hilarious in the world, she’s a well-known secret.” (RIP “Selfie.”)

Dwayne Johnson, though “not primarily a comedy star, [is still] hilarious,” notes Kasdan, with a light-footed charisma that’s served him well in such comedy and comedy-adjacent roles as Maui in Moana and the meathead buffoon Doyle in Pain & Gain. (In Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, watch out for…the smolder.) “It’s hard to imagine the movie without him,” says Kasdan. “There was a moment when we thought we were going to have to, because he was not available.” Then schedules changed, as they often do, and Johnson—or “DJ,” as Kasdan calls him—was back on the table. “In this incredibly fortunate turn, he and his team read [the script] and digested it shockingly quickly, and he said ‘Let’s go.’”

Johnson “ran to it in a very cool way. He completely embraced the character, the endeavor of playing that guy in every single moment, and I love what he does.” But does Dwayne Johnson have an inner teenage nerd to draw upon? “He claims he has one!” laughs Kasdan. “I don’t know if he had instant access to being an awkward, neurotic 15-year-old, but he was totally engaged in trying to find that. Luckily, he had me there, and I have a lot of experience with being awkward and uncomfortable and nervous.”

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle’s true standout, however, was Jack Black, who had of the four main adult actors perhaps the most challenging task: playing a narcissistic teenage girl—your ’80s Valley Girl stereotype updated for the 21st century, with a encyclopedic knowledge of Instagram filters and a tendency towards lingo of the “YAAS QUEEN” variety—trapped inside the body of a schlubby middle-aged man. Black, in this writer’s opinion, is one of the best actors—comedic or otherwise—working today, and he’s someone Kasdan’s collaborated with quite frequently: first in Orange County, then with smaller roles in Sex Tape and Walk Hard. So, forgive me, but I just had to ask: What is it like working withnoted genius Jack Black?

“He’s one of my favorite actors to work with,” says Kasdan. “On every level. He’s one of my first calls—if there’s anything I can possibly think of that he might want to do, he’s somebody I call immediately. He’s one of the funniest people on the planet, and he makes everybody around him better.” Playing Professor Shelby Oberon AKA Bethany is such a “big-swing idea”—and one that easily could have gone wrong, with an actor of a lesser caliber turning in a performance that basically boils down to making fun of a teenage girl.

“That’s exactly what you don’t want it to be,” agrees Kasdan—and it’s exactly what Black manages to avoid, thanks to his complete and utter commitment to the role and a lack of wink wink nudge nudge irony. “It would have been something I was worried about, except that my faith in his brilliance is so absolute that I just knew it would be fine,” Kasdan explains. “He has this incredibly loving touch to how he plays this girl… It’s a real decision you’re making right there. You can’t half-ass that once that’s what you’re doing. Because of the combination of his commitment and how funny he is, it’s the kind of thing where everybody looked at it, and it helped set a level and define a tone for what the movie would be like.”

The energy Black provides is what Kasdan was going for as a whole—funny but earnest, with the snark dialed way down. (There are some satirical elements in play here, with the script poking gentle fun at videogame conventions like NPCs.) For Kasdan, a key goal was honoring the spirit of the 1995 film. “There’s something very powerful, to me, about the magic of the original movie. There’s this game that comes to life and finds people that need [it], teaches them something they didn’t realize they needed to learn, reveals something to themselves about their own character. There’s some big ideas in it that I think are powerful and resonant.”

Part and parcel with respecting the earlier film is not trying to remake it: “You don’t want to re-do something that was done right the first time, and not that long ago.” There’s the odd nod to the earlier film, one of the most prominent of which is a heart-tugging reference to Jumanji’s Alan Parrish, played by the late Robin Williams. “He loomed enormously large,” says Kasdan. “Obviously in the world of Jumanji—he’s at the top of Mount Jumanji—but also for anyone whose life was partly about comedy, he’s this towering figure and always will be. It was important to all of us to recognize Robin.”

Recognize, but not attempt to replace, as if you ever could—there is no real Alan Parrish equivalent in Welcome to the Jungle. (There’s a character who’s been stuck in the game for a long time, but that’s where the similarities stop.) “I’ve always thought of it as a continuation of the story of the game,” says Kasdan, rather than as a remake or even a straightforward sequel. It’s an expansion, too—we get to see the inside of Jumanji-the-game the way we never did before and are thus treated to all the action and adventure that earlier had only been implied.

That part—the CGI, the action sequences, the year of post-production—was a challenge for Kasdan, who’s never done anything remotely approaching Welcome to the Jungle’s computer-effects scale in any of his earlier work. He admits to “starting almost from zero” in that regard. “I’ve done a very minimal amount of effects work in my previous movies, but stuff that would be essentially invisible—if it’s successful, it’s completely invisible and makes it look like nothing’s happening.”

The key, if you don’t know everything (and who does?), is to surround yourself with a team that has the knowledge you lack. “I trusted the rule I’ve always gone by, which is I don’t have to be an expert in other people’s jobs. I just have to be an expert in the movie I’m making. I have a pretty good sense of what it was I want to get across and then find great, great people”—like director of photography Gyula Pados, production designer Owen Paterson and editors Steve Edwards and Mark Helfrich—“who can help me do it. It’s been an incredible education. It’s been meticulous and slow. I didn’t quite realize what it was going to be like, that it’s almost like making the movie again. It’s enthralling and frustrating and exhilarating.”