Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is arguably the best live-action, video game movie ever made, and it’s not even based on an actual video game. The success of this film is its willingness to embrace the absurdity of multiple lives, power-ups, and overpowered avatars. Simply put, Jumanji isn’t afraid to be labeled a video game movie — it revels in the labelling.
I think we can all agree: video game movies are uniformly terrible, right? Seriously, name a great one? OK, name a decent one? Can’t do it, can you? That’s because there aren’t any. None. But why is this?
First, it’s challenging (if not impossible) to strictly adapt a video game. The storylines are often razor thin, the villains mindless drones, and the protagonists ridiculously powerful — yet these heroes tend to die repeatedly within a given game session. Live-action film adaptations generally dispense with such conceits, and the results are predictably shallow, hollow schlock that lean too heavily upon visual gags and gimmicks (see the first-person sequences in Dwayne Johnson’s Doom, for example).
Second, many live-action, video game movies take their source material way, way too seriously. The first Tomb Raider movie starred Angelina Jolie, Daniel Craig, and Jon Voight in a completely sober quest to recover the “all-seeing-eye,” a magical artifact of immense power. (Is there any other kind?) The film strived to be a cheeky Raiders of the Lost Ark — if Indiana Jones had worn spandex and could do backflips. Jolie, for no apparent reason, possessed a set of nearly omnipotent fighting skills; she fearlessly battled a spider-like robot with a pair of silver-plated handguns, and later engaged a room full of armed mercenaries while riding a motorcycle — all with a straight face. Because this movie tries to be semi-serious, Jolie’s uncanny abilities are distracting and derail suspension of disbelief.
Third, video game filmmakers often restrain themselves for no apparent reason. The Mortal Kombat movie is cited as one of the best-of-the-worst within this genre, according to Vulture. The adaptation was based upon a hyper-violent series of grindhouse-style, arcade fighting games. Even the earliest iterations were exceptionally graphic and bloody; its characters ripped the skulls, splines, and spleens right out of their opponent’s bodies. And yet, the film version was somehow rated PG-13, featured few fight scenes, and massively toned-down the violence. If you’re going to make a movie based on something as silly and shocking as Mortal Kombat, why not go all the way? Why hold back?
Jumanji, by contrast, knows what it is and goes for it. During an early fight scene, Dwayne Johnson — a computer-generated avatar in the film — brawls a series of muscular enemies, calling out each of his special moves as he goes. You can almost feel the button presses. It looks and plays like a sequence from any of the Street Fighter or Tekken fighting games — it’s immensely fun because both the characters and the audience are in on the joke.
At various times Jumanji displays graphical interfaces on-screen, conveying character traits and abilities — just like you would see in any video game. The characters can see these elements too, because they’re superimposed inside the movie’s world. It’s intensely silly, but it works because the characters are aware that they’re living inside this fictional, game environment. Compare this to the trailer from Steven Spielberg’s upcoming Ready Player One movie, like Jumanji contains a full-realized game world; Ready Player One appears to follow the Tomb Raider model of playing things too straight and serious.
Hopefully Hollywood attributes Jumanji‘s incredible box office revenue (currently standing at $768 million worldwide) to its gleeful acceptance of its video game roots. If you’re going to make a live-action video game movie in the wake of Jumanji, start by latching onto of all the little things that make the experience so unique, and then double-down. Don’t hide graphical interfaces, show them off; it’s OK if your guns never run out of bullets; fans will line up for a Halo or Destiny movie if it actually looks, sounds, and feels like the core experience — that’s why these games are so popular in the first place!