No one was more surprised than director Jake Kasdan when his 2017 sequel to the 1995 adventure-fantasy-comedy Jumanji became a $964 million worldwide smash and the second-highest-performing Sony domestic release ever. The perfect four-quadrant movie, appealing to men and women, children and adults, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle updated the premise of a board game with supernatural powers to the video game era. And what made it especially irresistible was the inspired casting of the avatars the game’s four teenage players become once they get sucked into its fantasy realm: Nerdy Spencer transformed into muscle god Dwayne Johnson; hulking jock Fridge turned into diminutive Kevin Hart; emo outcast Martha became the formidable Karen Gillan; and mean girl Bethany entered the chubby body of Jack Black.
Kasdan and co-writers Scott Rosenberg (Con Air, Venom) and Jeff Pinkner (“Fringe,” Venom) alter the mix for the eagerly awaited sequel, Jumanji: The Next Level, opening on December 13. This time around, Spencer’s grandfather, played by Danny DeVito, gets transported into the body of Johnson, while his elderly friend Milo (Danny Glover) enters Hart’s avatar. To make matters more complicated, Fridge is now the Jack Black avatar. Meanwhile, Spencer and Bethany are missing in action. The adventure also expands beyond the jungle, encompassing deserts and snow-capped mountains.
Welcome to the Jungle took Kasdan’s career to an entirely new plateau. Previously, he had directed a series of relatively low-budget comedies including Orange County, The TV Set, Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, Bad Teacher, and Sex Tape. He’s also a successful TV producer, with credits including “New Girl,” “Fresh Off the Boat,” “Speechless,” and new series “Bless This Mess.” The action-driven Jumanji series brings him closer to the oeuvre of his celebrated father, Lawrence Kasdan, co-writer of Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Empire Strikes Back, and Star Wars: Episode VII—The Force Awakens, as well as writer-director of such acclaimed ensemble dramas as The Big Chill, The Accidental Tourist, and Grand Canyon.
In this phone interview, Jake Kasdan talks about the challenges of revisiting the world of Jumanji.
Welcome to the Jungle was a massive success. What is your state of mind as you get to work on a sequel and try to match the impact of that film?
All of us loved working together on that first one, so there was a real appetite—if we could figure out an idea that we loved—to do it again. We were also all adamant that unless we could come up with an idea that really excited us, we weren’t going to do it, because the first movie holds a special place for us. And so it was a little daunting, but fairly quick, actually, as we started to explore the possibilities. We came to some ideas about how to do a sequel that got us all really excited, and then that sort of becomes, what’s on your mind? It’s not so much about the last movie it’s, what can we do now?
So what was the germ that got you excited the second time around?
As we were finishing up a promotion of the last movie around the world, I had a conversation with Dwayne. We were saying how if we allowed ourselves to think about it, if there was another one, what would it look like? And both of us felt pretty strongly that the fun opportunity, the big opportunity with our Jumanji conceit as we’re using it in these movies, is that you could have the cast playing different people each time. He identified with that immediately—that as much as we had the great fun and pleasure of him playing a kid in the first movie, it wasn’t the only way that these could work, and in fact it could all be new again by shaking that up. The idea that he and Kevin would be playing these older guys at a completely different part of their lives, experiencing the adventure the way the kids had, changed everything.
Am I crazy or is there a little bit of a subtle homage to Twins? DeVito co-starred with Arnold Schwarzenegger in that film, and here you’re matching him up with Dwayne Johnson.
Because of how these movies work, they never have a scene together. But I can certainly see where you might think that. And while they’re not actually side by side in the movie, you really feel that they’re both playing the same guy. And Danny’s presence and persona and genius hopefully continue through the part of the movie that he’s not in. You feel him there all the time.
Did you have the two of them work together off screen to get each other’s vibes?
Yes, a bit. It was important to us going in that these guys get to spend a little bit of time with the people that they are playing, because unlike the first movie where you have the stars playing these kids [whom] you don’t exactly know apart from their characters, here we have the characters they’re playing, but also both Danny DeVito and Danny Glover are iconic movie actors that we have very powerful associations with.
Can you talk about the interaction between Kevin Hart and Danny Glover?
When I went to Kevin and said, here’s what I’m thinking about for the next one, he immediately said Danny Glover. The second he said it, I just said, yes, this is a guy that I look up to, and he’s one of my all-time favorites for as long as I can remember. He made some movies with my dad, so Danny lives very large in my movie consciousness. And it was one of those things where the second Kevin said [his name], I said there couldn’t be a more perfect person to do this. Let me try and get him.
What new sides of Jack Black are we going to see in this film?
Well, Jack’s doing a whole new thing, as he says in the trailer. And he is just brilliant playing this character that Kevin was playing in the last movie. And in order to do that, you have to triangulate a lot of the kid that plays the character in the real world and our familiarity with what Kevin did in the last movie. He’s taken both of those things and expanded on them and made them his own.
Karen Gillan is part of two big franchises now. I keep waiting for her to carry a film on her own. It seems like she’s due.
Well, that’ll happen. The thing is, when you’re into big franchises like that and you’re a central part of both, it means that you’re working on those movies all the time. Just the logistics of her complicated schedule make it so that’s what she’s working on much of the time. But she has a lot of stuff on the runway. Truthfully, she has a much bigger piece of this movie than she did the first, and she carries a lot on her shoulders for large sections of this movie. I love working with her and I love what she’s done here.
Talk a little bit about Dwayne Johnson and the phenomenon that he is. When you think of where he came from, the wrestling career, and now he’s one of the biggest movie stars in the world. What is he like to work with on a day-to-day basis?
It’s boring to say, but he’s been a total pleasure. The personality that he presents in public is completely genuine. He’s this lovely, incredibly hardworking guy with a big heart and a big sense of humor. He wants to make it great, and it’s been a blast doing these with him.
Welcome to the Jungle was a huge transition for you. You’d been doing these low-budget comedies, and now you’re suddenly working on a huge scale. Do you enjoy doing action and working with visual effects?
I love it. It’s something that I didn’t really anticipate I would love as much as I do. I’d always wanted to make a movie that was a big-scale adventure. The visual effects aspect of it is not what I was most focused on, but it is something that I’ve come to really love doing—designing the action, shooting this action stuff with all of the amazing people that you work with.
I’m sure Welcome to the Jungle exceeded your expectations, but it came in just under a billion dollars. Is that frustrating for you?
Not in the least bit. [laughs] There was not one single aspect of how that movie was received that was frustrating. I was nothing but grateful.
Do you mind talking about your father and his influence on you as a filmmaker?
Not at all. The gift of growing up with him is that I got to see from a very young age how this is the best job in the world. And I got to realize that was the case when most people don’t know what a director is. The result is I’ve had this exposure to this thing that I’ve loved since I was a little kid. And in addition to that, my whole family is very close. [Jake’s brother Jonathan is also a writer and director.] It’s something that we all share to some extent—we are involved in each other’s lives and work and it’s a great, lucky thing. His influences are many. While we’ve made different kinds of movies, a lot of what interests us is quite similar.
With Jumanji, you kind of entered his domain. There’s definitely a connection with the Star Wars and Indiana Jones worlds.
Certainly much more so than any of the other movies that I’ve made. I always think of Jumanji as being actually a comedy that has all of this other stuff—the machinery and mechanics that come with it—and this fantasy component that is certainly informed by those movies, the ones he’s made and the ones like them. The Jumanji movies obviously owe a great debt to all action comedies. It’s definitely a step into territory that is more like the work he’s done.
Have you thought about the possibility of a third Jumanji film?
Yeah, anything’s possible at the moment. I’m just trying to finish this one up as well as I can and make it its best version of itself, and then we’ll see if that’s something the world wants.
We’re now in this new era where people are streaming a lot of their entertainment on their home screens. How important is it that people still go out to the theater to see a film like The Next Level?
We spend a lot of time and thought and energy on that theatrical experience. And there’s no question that for this particular movie, from the conception through every stage of the way we’re building it, the idea is that people sit in a room and have this big screen in front of them presenting big action and they’ll laugh together in the communal experience of watching the story. I do a lot of work for television also, but these Jumanji movies are built for the movie theater.