It’s a truism that Hollywood has a terrible track record when it comes to video game movies. But it’s not entirely accurate. There are lots of great video game movies out there – they’re just not based on actual video games.
This month, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, joins films like Edge of Tomorrow and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World on the list of excellent films inspired by video games but not directly adapted from one. This one is a loose sequel to 1995’s Jumanji, which reimagines the dangerous board game as a ’90s-era video game.
The game catches the attention of four bored modern-day teenagers stuck in detention. As soon as the kids press play, however, they’re pulled into the world of the game, in the bodies of the avatars they’ve chosen.
It’s a novel premise for a video game movie – and one that lets Jumanji avoid many of the pitfalls that have trapped so many video game adaptations.
Jumanji breathes personality into archetypal characters
The first and possibly most important thing that Jumanji adds to the video game movie template are complicated, three-dimensional characters. In games, the heroes are left somewhat blank by design. They might have backstories, stats, and some pre-determined quirks, but it’s up to the players to bring them to life, by injecting their own personas and choices into those avatars.
Jumanji presents four archetypal avatars – the brawny hero (Dwayne Johnson), the faithful sidekick (Kevin Hart), the kickass hottie (Karen Gillan), and the nerdy professor (Jack Black). But it then rounds them out with the personalities of the four players – a nerd, a jock, an overachiever, and a queen bee, respectively.
This approach fixes one issue common to video game adaptations – the sense that you’re just watching someone else play a game when you’d rather just play it yourself.
Since Jumanji invites you to identify with the players, who then pour themselves into their game counterparts, you’re not left struggling to relate to two-dimensional avatars who were never meant to be three-dimensional people. With the players serving as a go-between, you connect to the characters in a way that works for a movie, not a video game.
Jumanji embraces the uncanny unreality of video games
That tension we just talked about, between the player and the avatar? Jumanji lives in the friction between those two halves. There are lots of jokes about the bizarreness of becoming someone else, including an uproariously funny scene in which the queen-bee player gets acquainted with her new male anatomy.
Jumanji additionally takes good-natured jabs at NPCs (their confusing familiarity, their stilted patter), character stats (like seemingly random weaknesses), and cutscenes (what the hell are these out-of-nowhere infodumps?). It pokes fun at the female avatar’s hellaciously impractical costume, and mines surprising pathos from the way time never really seems to move forward in a game.
The film understands what’s so uncanny about video games and embraces those qualities rather than running from them. There, Jumanji has an advantage over most video game adaptations: It’s a comedy, which means it gets plenty of leeway to make fun of itself.
Jumanji gets to build its world (almost) from scratch
Then there’s the fact that Jumanji, though it pays homage to video games, isn’t actually beholden to any particular game. There’s no devoted fanbase that might get upset if you overhaul the characters, no intricate mythology that needs to be untangled for general audiences. In that sense, Jumanji functions almost like an original movie, in that it gets to build most of its world from scratch.
With that freedom, Jumanji makes the wise choice to keep the mythos simple. There’s some stuff about an archnemesis, and a prophecy, and a magical MacGuffin that could save the world or destroy it – but the film only tells the audience as much as we need to know to “play” the game (i.e., follow the plot of the movie).
For viewers like me, who struggle to keep up with films that require you to catch up on centuries of fictional history before digging into the main plot, that’s a blessing. (Yes, Warcraft, I was talking about you.) It lowers the barrier of entry. And it means that everyone – know-it-all gamers and clueless newbies alike – get to discover the rules and experience the plot twists together, making for a more inclusive cinematic experience.
Jumanji knows when to ditch the video-game conceit
That’s important, because for all its video game trappings, Jumanji is a movie first and foremost, and it never forgets that. It may enjoy playing around with game conventions, but it has no problem ditching the ones that don’t work.
The film largely ditches the cutesy video game gags as it goes on, trusting that we’re more interested in the narrative at that point. It doesn’t mind cheating a bit by including scenes of the villain plotting away, even if they don’t really make sense within a video game framework. (They’re not cutscenes, because the film establishes early on that the players can see cutscenes, whereas they cannot see what the villain is up to.)
In fact, the whole film is structured less like a game than a movie. It unfolds logically and linearly, and doesn’t meander or repeat itself the way a session of gameplay might. But there, too, Jumanji finds a way to have it both ways, presenting the gradually rising stakes as a nod to the progressively harder “levels” in video games.
Jumanji understands the appeal of video games
In other words, Jumanji knows that movies and games appeal to audiences in different ways. And yet the reason it’s so successful as a video game movie, specifically, is that it understands why people love games.
Once the characters get past their initial alarm, they start to have some fun with the experience. They delight in accomplishing things they could never dream of IRL, like handling dangerous beasts or punching out baddies or dangling out of helicopters. They experience the thrill of being someone else – someone cooler, smarter, sexier, braver – for a little while.
While Jumanji isn’t interactive in the way of actual video games, it does its best to simulate that feeling by getting you on the same page with the players at every turn. So when, say, the overlooked nerd starts to relish his new identity as a beefy badass who looks like the Rock, the part of you that identifies with that overlooked nerd enjoys it too.
And when, at one point, a character expresses a desire to stay in the game forever, it’s all too easy to understand what they mean. It’s a childish sentiment, but one that should feel relatable to anyone who’s ever disappeared into a fantasy game world and felt a lurch of disappointment at being pulled back into the real one.