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SCRIPT SECRETS: The Emotional Journey, Part 1

What are the key ingredients to a great story? William C. Martell examines the box-office hit, "Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle," showing how the writers take the audience on an emotional journey.

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Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle stuck around at #1 or #2 at the Box Office from December 20th, 2017 until February 8th, 2018, and came close to making a billion dollars worldwide. The definition of a successful film is when the movie is *still* in the Top Ten Box Office a week after the video release date... which is why the sequel Jumanji: The Next Level is coming out December 13th. 

So why was the first film so successful? Great concept, great characters dealing with personal emotional conflicts... and funny! So let's take a look at the story and the people with the problems and their journeys.


One of the issues with a remake or reboot is that if you are perfectly faithful to the original the audience will complain that there was nothing new (and compare it to the original, and most of the time it will fail in that comparison), and if you deviate too far from the original (like the Total Recall remake) not only will they believe that you’ve screwed up their beloved story, they will definitely compare it to the original and fail it.

Doing one of these is more difficult than doing an original, yet Hollywood is all about the “existing brand” as a way to sell a movie. If you were a fan of Jumanji with Robin Williams, you don’t have to be told what the film is about, and you don’t have to explain the weird title—you already know it. It’s a “brand.” So, let’s do another Jumanji movie! Or let’s remake Jumanji! Or let’s do a reboot or a hybrid sequel / remake! But no matter what you do, that audience who bought a ticket because they loved the original is going to compare this new film to the one they love... and that can create problems.

So, finding the way to make it the same but different is often the most difficult hurdle, and Jumanji figures out the perfect answer—they used the “rule of the logical opposite” that I discuss in my Ideas Blue Book. Instead of the jungle coming to the players, the players are transported to the jungle. This is a great way to do something between a sequel and a reboot—it honors the original but also does something different... and brings the game into present day. Fans of the original get something similar, but also something they haven’t seen before. Not an exact duplication, which just begs for comparison to the original.

The story begins twenty years ago with a high school kid named Alex Vreeke finding the board game Jumanji from the original film buried on the beach. Board games are old fashioned—Alex plays video games. He ignores it. So in the middle of the night the board game morphs into a video game, which Alex plays... right before he vanishes off the face of the earth.

Present day, we meet our high school kid four leads as they are sent to detention for character-based offenses, in sort of a modern riff on Breakfast Club. I believe the reason for the success of this film is that everything in the story is character-based even if you don't think it is. Often things that seem like comedy bits are actually designed for character. And those characters don't just sit there, they go through an ordeal and are forced to change in order to resolve their problems. Our detention crew:

Spencer (Alex Woolf) is a super-smart kid who is afraid of everything (he has a king-sized container of hand sanitizer in his bedroom) and never takes chances... except this one time when he writes an essay for his childhood pal...

“Fridge” (Ser'Darius Blain) a high-school football player who will be cut from the team unless he gets his grades up. Fridge is too cool to hang out with Spencer these days, and too cool for school—he’s going to get a football scholarship and go pro. But when he and Spencer are caught cheating, they get thrown into detention with...

Bethany (Madison Iseman) the popular girl who is all about herself—she doesn’t care about anyone else. She takes a million selfies—carefully posed to look natural—and ends up in detention when she takes a phone call in the middle of a test, disrupting the class around her.

Martha (Morgan Turner) a rebel geek girl who thinks having to take physical education is stupid—she’s here to *learn*, not run laps—and mouths off to her P.E. teacher, which lands her in detention. By the way, Spencer witnesses this act of rebellion and thinks Martha is great... he wishes he had the guts to do something like that.

jumanji characters

This is the starting point on each of their journeys.

By the way, to connect Alex Vreeke's disappearance to our modern-day characters, Spencer meets Fridge in front of the ultra-creepy Vreeke House to hand him the essay... and they are run off my downright scary Mr. Vreeke (Tim Matheson).

Just like Breakfast Club, the Principal (Marc Evan Jackson) leads them to a room at 11:30 into the film, where they will have to spend the next few hours (and maybe a few hours tomorrow) in detention. Instead of a classroom, this is a storage room, where they will remove the staples from bins filled with magazines so that they can be recycled. Before the Principal leaves them to their task, he says that they should spend the time considering "Who you are in this moment in time, and who you want to be." Exactly what a Principal would say to kids in detention... but also the key to this story. Because despite Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle being a silly comedy that takes place in a video game, it is also a movie that is all about the characters...

[Script Secrets: No Dramatic Stone Unturned]


So who are these characters at this moment in time? Spencer needs to get over his fears and learn to use his physical side and realize that he could be a leader.

Where Spencer “coasts” on his intelligence, Fridge “coasts” on his physical power... and needs to work on his mind, he is an intelligent kid—he also needs to learn not to dump old friends just because “society” thinks they aren’t cool anymore. In a way, these two characters are opposites—each has a part the other needs. Buddy comedies usually work because the two leads each need to learn something from each other in order to solve the physical problem.

Speaking of “society,” Bethany is dangerously full of herself and needs to realize there are other people in the world, and maybe it’s a good thing to care about them... and that beauty is only skin deep.

Martha is similar to Spencer in some ways, and the opposite in others—she is *fearless*! But she is also so focused on her internal life that she has neglected her external life... so she isn’t able to harness the power of being fearless, and she’s shy and a loner.

So each of these characters is a mix of positive and negative aspects—well-rounded and interesting. Not two-dimensional. They each have a flaw that they are struggling with. And that is a dead giveaway to what they are and who they want to be (or maybe *need* to be), but in the film this is subtle—hidden in a comedy moment or a plot moment. So as the audience, we just see these four people—and have no idea they are about to embark on a life-changing journey.

A strange misconception in writing is that there are character study films and plot/story films, which makes no sense. I have a Script Tip in rotation on how Story = Character = Story = Character—these things are so connected that you can not pry them apart. You can have a story that focuses too much on plot... and that’s just as bad as one that focuses too much on character. Because the two are so closely related, you need to find the balance between them. Conflict brings character to the surface, and to keep the conflict squeezing that character is the main purpose of plot. Remove the conflict and there is no natural way to dig into a character... and you end up with dull exposition.

Now, that Conflict doesn't have to be the end of the world, but it has to be the worst thing that can happen to that individual. You may not think of Jumanji as a character-based story, but it establishes the characters early and then everything that happens is a result of these particular characters.

[What Can Video Game Design Teach Us About Screenwriting]

None of these kids (except Martha) wants to remove staples from old magazines, but the Principal has taken away their phones and anything else they might amuse themselves with. They are stuck with their task... or are they? In that storage room they find a bowling ball... and an ancient video-game console... with the Jumanji game cartridge in it. Spencer and Fridge hook the game up to a beat-up old TV, and it works! There are four game controllers, and five avatars, and each picks one to play the game as. Except the first character on the list, pilot "Seaplane" McDonough, has already been taken. So each selects some other character to play, and then...


At 16:40 (minutes:seconds) into the story, all four kids are sucked into the video game, and end up falling from the sky into the jungles of Jumanji... in the bodies of the game characters they have chosen. That was unexpected!

Spencer becomes musclebound archeologist Dr. Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson)—a Doc Savage type adventurer, a leader. The kind of tough action hero who fears nothing... which is the exact opposite of who Spencer is.

Fridge becomes zoology expert “Moose” (or is it “Mouse”?) Finbar (Kevin Hart) who is a foot shorter and much less physical than his old self. A character who lives by his brains, not his brawn. Also a “follower” rather than a leader—he carries the backpack full of tools for Dr. Bravestone.

Martha becomes the super hot martial arts expert Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan) who is a “killer of men” in every possible way. Ruby is all about her physical self, and Martha questions why someone in the jungle would wear a leather halter top and short shorts. Once again, the opposite of who she is in real life.

Bethany becomes "curvy genius" cartographer Dr. Shelly Oberon (Jack Black) who is *not* a curvy female, but a pudgy middle-aged man! A character who uses his brains, rather than his body... whose body doesn't even matter to him. Nobody has ever thought Oberon was hot, and nobody ever wanted to look at his endless selfies... which is another issue for Bethany—there are no phones in this world. How will she survive?

jumanji emotional journey

Each has become the opposite of who they are. Emotionally they are the same as they were outside the video game, but physically they are the person they need to become. This is the real genius of the concept, because the contrast between their interior, emotional selves (who they are) and their physical self and skills within the game (who they need to become) *shows* us the struggle going on within the character. Every obstacle in the game shows us their character's journey as the interior and exterior versions battle it out. This contrast is also the main instigator of most of the story's comedy; so tough and ultra-masculine Dr. Bravestone keeps saying to himself, "Don't cry, don't cry, don't cry," and Jack Black should have gotten an Oscar nomination for convincingly playing a vain teen girl. During the story each of these characters will have to grow into the person they are playing in the game... and that journey is what the story is really about. The plot forces each character to become the person they wish to be—forces their interiors to match the exteriors.


Now that we have set up the emotional journey for each character, the story sets up the physical journey, which is designed specifically to force each character to deal with the difference between where they are now—at the beginning of their emotional journey—and where they need to be at the end of their emotional journey. The physical and emotional journeys are connected. And so is the comedy, since it comes from the characters. Story is character is story.

[Script Secrets: Story Connections - The Essentials of Theme and Through Line]

After they have finished dealing with the radical differences between their physical selves and emotional selves, a Jeep pulls up, driven by Nigel (Rhys Darby) who has a map of the game, which is missing a corner. We get an amusing exposition dump, just like we would get in a video game, and the characters realize that to escape the game they must “win” it and complete each of the levels. Now we have our physical goal, with the map and quest for the jewel “The Jaguar’s Eye” which was stolen by the evil Van Pelt (which gave Van Pelt control over all of the animals in Jumanji), and return it to Jaguar Mountain. That’s what they have to do to get out of the game. A *physical goal*— something the camera can see them achieve. This is a movie—goals need to be visual.

But I neglected to mention the scene before this when a herd of hippos attack them, eating Dr. Oberon (Bethany)! She is gone. Dead. This may be a game, but it’s not playing around.

Then Dr. Oberon falls from the sky (like each did when they first arrived in Jumanji) - and they notice the tattoos on each of their wrists with three black bars—except Oberon/Bethany only has two now. In this game you only have three lives, and when you use them all up? You are dead in real life. No chance to return to the real world. “We could die here.”

So, we have established a physical goal, and serious stakes for failure to reach that goal. Though the deadline isn’t fixed by time, this is a jungle filled with wild animals and Van Pelt (played by a freaky Bobby Cannavale, our antagonist) is actively trying to prevent them from finding the jewel and replacing it, since he will lose his control over the animals (and insects—eew!). He has an army of thugs on dirt bikes sent to find them and kill them, plus hippos and rhinos and lions and tigers and birds and snakes and every other deadly species. So, our team can’t take their time finding the jewel and replacing it—they have to get off their butts and do something!

Emotional problem. Physical problem. Stakes. Deadline. Active antagonist.

Those are the basic elements of a story.

In part two, we will look at the individual steps in their emotional journey...

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