You may not have noticed but, Jumanji: Welcome the Jungle came out right around the same time as Star Wars: The Last Jedi, but it made a ton money. Twenty-two years after the first Jumanji hit theaters, the sequel Welcome to the Jungle — with a powerhouse cast including Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Jack Black, and Karen Gillan — was a surprise hit when it grossed over $900 million in December 2017, unusual for blockbusters not titled Star Wars. But, the director was nervous as hell for one reason. The death of Robin Williams.
Tasked with directing the sequel to a franchise made famous by the late comedian, Jake Kasdan (who by coincidence is the son of Empire Strikes Back writer Lawrence Kasdan, and brother to Jon, who wrote the forthcoming Solo: A Star Wars Story) admits there was a “concern” on his part during shooting. The legacy of Williams, whose role in the first Jumanji imprinted a priceless impression on a generation of moviegoers, was of paramount concern.
The challenge to honor the original while paving a new path loomed over the creative process like a shadow.
“There was a concern that we wanted our movie, which was very different, to be respectful of the original movie,” Kasdan told Inverse in a phone interview. “Certainly Robin [Williams] is, for anybody who works in comedy which is how I’ve spent most of my career, is this towering figure. He was enormous. We were very conscious of his presence in this franchise.”
Williams, who played the missing “Alan Parrish” in the 1995 film, died by suicide in 2014 at age 63. After his death, fans looked back fondly at the bulk of his work, especially Jumanji. To Kasdan, this meant a great deal of effort to make audiences comfortable with a new crop of comedic talents. As good as any actor can be, there was only one Robin Williams.
One tool Kasdan had in his arsenal was going all in on the film’s new video game-inspired story. In a change fitting 2017, the board game “Jumanji” magically reinvents itself as a retro video game, which sucks in the film’s characters who inhabit the game’s avatars — each equipped with different skills and weaknesses. With games, Kasdan and the screenwriters (Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers, Scott Rosenberg, and Jeff Pinkner) found a source for both comedy and action, sometimes all at once.
“It gave us a fun opportunity, in terms of ways you could play,” he said. “Comedy but also dramatic tension, of their lives ticking down, video game structures that progress from one sequence to the next but they’re not sure what’s coming. It was great ‘movie stuff’ when applied.”
Ultimately, the film allowed audiences to indulge in a fantasy that Kasdan says functions as the film’s two most central questions: “What if I could spend the day in a hero’s body?” and “What would I discover about myself?”
“My hope throughout was, if we did our jobs properly, it would honor the first movie,” Kasdan added, “but we get people to invest in what we were doing and become its own thing.”
Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is available now on Blu-ray and DVD.