Jumanji: The Next Level opened at number 1 with almost $60 million on its opening weekend, and has maintained the number 2 position for a couple of weeks and ended the year with over $500 million worldwide... not bad for 3 weeks of the second or third film in a series. While other films have blamed “franchise fatigue” this Jumanji movie was released in December of 2019 and still managed to be the #11 box office movie for the year. How is that possible?
Well, in Part One of this article we looked at how the sequel/reboot from two years ago didn’t just slap a number after the title and hope that the audience would want more of the same, they offered the same but *different* by having the characters become trapped inside the game, when the original film with Robin Williams had the game erupt into real life. This time around there were a couple of new wrinkles in the story in the trailer - a generational twist by having Spencer’s Grandfather (Danny DeVito) and his ex-partner (Danny Glover) sucked into the game and end up playing two of the most important characters. The other two big changes this time around are having the green water that allows our characters to swap avatars (sometimes not by choice), and that this is a rescue mission to save Spencer who is trapped in the game alone... and not as his fantasy character Dr. Smolder Bravestone, but as a new character who is way too much like himself, Ming Fleetfoot...
This brings us back to the 2017 film which was a huge hit due to the *character journeys* in the story.
Most people think of a character’s journey as something they might find in a serious art-house film like Marriage Story or Kurosawa’s classic Red Beard (1965), the last film he made with Toshiro Mifune which was about a spoiled wealthy boy who goes to medical school to become the personal physician to the Shogunate... but ends up sent to do his internship at a poor clinic in a rural part of Japan, under a strict doctor known as Red Beard. The film charts the spoiled young doctor’s emotional journey as he is forced to deal with patients to have “the smell of poverty” and gradually finds his place as a doctor who cares more about his patients than his salary. But a silly film like Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (2017) also requires that you take your characters on an emotional journey in order to become a huge hit and ensure that the sequel two years later is also a huge hit. The reason why people around the world (including Japan) wanted to see the new film was the depth of characters in the previous film. So, how did they do that?
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. No matter what genre you are writing, from a serious film like Red Beard or silly film like Jumanji or horror film or action film or thriller or... EVERY film needs great characters! The audience won’t care unless you have great characters. Characters = Caring. And this screenplay does a great job of setting up the characters for their emotional journeys...
Emotional problem. Physical problem. Stakes. Deadline. Active antagonist.
Those are the basic elements of a story.
One of the ways to bring out the character in a story is to pair them with their opposites, and Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is all about teamwork... with mismatched team members. Spencer and Fridge used to be best friends in grade school, but they have drifted apart. Though we don’t have back story information on Bethany and Martha, these characters are opposites socially and if not for landing in detention and then being trapped in the video game, they would never socialize. Now these four characters must work together in different combinations in order to escape the game... and pairing them with their opposite helps bring out each character. If you put a sloppy character with a sloppy character, there is no conflict between them, no drama, no humor, no contrast. We end up learning nothing about the characters because they are too much alike. But put a sloppy character with a neat character and you have The Odd Couple that was a hit Broadway play until it became a hit movie until it became a long-running TV series. Opposites react!
An element of the game is that each character has a specialty, and that means they must work together to solve the game in order to survive. That map of Jumanji? When reluctant leader Dr. Bravestone looks at it, he sees nothing - it’s just a blank piece of paper. But Dr. Oberon is a cartographer - a map guy - so when Bethany (a self-obsessed popular girl in real life) looks at it, she sees their course. “We can’t waste lives, we need each other.”
In my Supporting Characters Blue Book we look at “pairing characters” - taking two characters that are opposites and putting them in the same scenes, so that each brings out the character of the other. In James Cameron’s Aliens the badass rebel Vasquez is paired in scene after scene with first-time commander Lt. Gorman who is afraid and strictly by the rules. In order to show that Gorman is by the rules, just add Vasquez to the scene. In order to show Vasquez is a badass, just add Gorman to the scene. Because they are opposite characters, each brings the other’s character to the surface. This also makes for more dramatic scenes, and the evolving relationship between Vasquez and Gorman is one of the millions of great things about this screenplay (and film). So look at the characters in your screenplay - which pair of characters is most different? Force them to work with each other!
In Jumanji we have brains and brawn, popularity and rebellion. And each of those four character’s main attributes can interact with the other three when they are paired up. Those are the emotional and internal attributes. Plus each character has strengths and weaknesses in the game - physical attributes, and they must work together to survive. If Bethany uses all three lives, the team has lost the ability to read the map. And because each of these characters is the opposite of their game avatars in real life, each can help advise the other with their real-life expertise. Some of the weaknesses are funny - Moose Finbar will explode if he eats cake, but others are deadly serious - Ruby Roundhouse is allergic to venoms of all kinds, and did I mention that Van Pelt controls snakes? This is another element of teamwork - each must protect the other from their weakness... but at times step up and confront their own weakness.
The physical situations inside the game are designed to bring out the characters. Designed to force the characters to deal with their flaws and overcome them.
Now we chart each character’s emotional journey - because we have four characters, each reaches a similar point in their journey at a different time, which allows us a variety of high points and low points staggered throughout the story. Though all of these points are at similar times in the overall story, by having each emotional journey point at a different time it keeps them from feeling “planned” and allows for more emotional scenes and individual decisions.
1) FLAW: Each of our four main characters goes through the same steps in their journey. We begin the story with all four characters, Spence, Fridge, Bethany, and Martha with their main character flaw on full display. I have said before that Character Flaw Is Story - because usually that is what creates the emotional struggle in a story. Spence is the intelligent kid who is withdrawn and lives entirely in his mind. Fridge is the athlete who is all about his physical strength and doesn’t even try to do his homework anymore - a natural leader. Bethany is the super popular girl who is all surface and no depth. Martha is the rebel girl who does the exact opposite of whatever people expect from her and hides her beauty. Each of these characters is trapped in the safety of their cocoons, afraid to take the next step and grow into adults. That fear is holding them back - and Spencer will graduate and go to college and get a job as that withdrawn person, never attaining his potential.
2) FORCED TO CHANGE: Once the character is established as they are, they are thrust into the game 16:45 (minutes: seconds) into the story, where their bodies represent where the character needs to be in order to have resolved their flaw. Spencer turns into strong, confident Dr. Bravestone. Fridge turns into Moose Finbar, an expert zoologist who knows everything about the jungle they are trapped in... and is a follower rather than a leader. Bethany becomes curvy Dr.Oberon - curvy as in fat - a genius with maps, though not popular at all. Martha becomes Ruby Roundhouse, a killer of men by all definitions of the word - sexy and physically active. So internally they are flawed, externally they are changed. The story will create a series of moments for each to struggle with the difference between who they are on the inside and who they are on the outside.
3) AFRAID TO CHANGE: Around 43:20 into the story, Spencer and Fridge have a conversation about not knowing how to deal with their new lives, as Martha and Bethany have the same conversation a few feet away. Everyone has transformed from cocoon to butterfly, but is uncomfortable with their new form.
4) ACCEPT THE NEED TO CHANGE: After often working at cross purposes, at 51:34 they realize that they must work together in order to survive the game. Characters like Martha and Bethany who would completely ignore each other in school must work together as a team inside the game if they hope to escape. The four begin working together - and this brings their differences into contrast.
5) RELUCTANT CHANGE: As they begin to struggle with their flaws and change into the person they need to become, each has a moment where they become the person that they need to be - they shed the cocoon and become the butterfly. At 54:30 Spencer turns and fights a motorcycle gang - the way Bravestone would. This gives him renewed confidence in himself, and he gives an amazing pep talk to Martha at 1:05:15 - he’s a leader! At 1:10:30 Martha becomes super sexy to distract a pair of guards... overcoming her fears and becoming the person that she needs to be. She is now a combination of her intelligent self and her physical self - a whole person. In the middle of a rhino attack action scene, Fridge takes one for the team at 1:21:05 and sacrifices himself (using knowledge of Rhinos) so the others can live. And moments later, at 1:23:10, self-centered Bethany gives one of her lives to Alex Vreck who has been stuck in the game for years and is the pilot who can get them all out. Each person breaks out of the cocoon to become their better self...
6) SELF DOUBT: But then each hits a snag - a failure - which creates self-doubt. Maybe instead of being what they are on the outside, they are better off as the flawed individual they are on the inside? The self-doubt moment is important because it adds both realism (none of us just change without there being struggle and self-doubt) and also creates suspense because the audience now worries that they will not change emotionally and fail when dealing with the physical conflict... Which is fatal inside the game. One of the elements of this self-doubt is that each of them now only has 1 life left inside the game (they began with 3) and if they die in the game, they die in real life. Spencer says it was easier to be a brave leader when he had 3 lives. Now each character wonders if they really can be the person that they need to be... which creates a moment of depression in each. Like each character going through their reluctant change at different times in the story, their self-doubt also happens at different times in the story... but ends at 1:32:05 when Spencer gives another little speech to the group: “We always only had one life.” They can work together, using their old skills and their new skills to solve the problem and escape from the game.
7) ACCEPTING THE CHANGE: Now, with the doubts forefront in both the audience’s minds and the character’s minds, they push forward into a major external struggle that requires they believe in their emotional change in order to survive. What’s great about this is that each os a whole person now - and Fridge uses a football play *and* his knowledge of zoology plus being a team player instead of the star player as his part of the plan. Each character pulls elements from both past selves and new selves as part of the team, and they win the game and escape back to the real world as the better versions of themselves.
8) RETURN CHANGED: All four return to their old lives... and detention... having changed into the people they need to be to live the best versions of their lives. In some ways this reminds me of...
DAN HARMON’S STORY CIRCLE
Dan Harmon, who I may have interacted with online back when the internet was green letters on a black background, has a version of a character’s emotional journey that is in 8 stages:
1) A character is in a zone of comfort,
2) But they want something.
3) They enter an unfamiliar situation,
4) Adapt to it,
5) Get what they wanted,
6) Pay a heavy price for it,
7) Then return to their familiar situation,
8) Having changed.
He uses this tool on episodes of his Rick and Morty and Community TV shows, and it gives his crazy comedy shows a strong emotional core. I prefer the struggle against the change and the moments of self-doubt, though that may be part of his “heavy price”. Either way, we end up with characters who gradually change - and fight their change - which seems realistic to me. In Lagos Egri’s The Art Of Dramatic Writing he says, “No honest man will become a thief overnight; no thief will become honest in the same period of time.” Everything happens in small steps. So map out your character’s *emotional* journey in those steps... and watch them turn from cocoons to beautiful butterflies.
Unless they are honest men who turn into thieves.
Will there be another Jumanji movie? Probably! I wonder what will happen in the next film?