What Jumanji Teaches Us About the State of Blockbusters at the Box Office

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is one of the box office success stories of a 2017 that was lacking in success stories. We examine why.

Atop of everything else, 2017 was largely considered a very gloomy time at the box office. After a splendid and high-charging winter and spring that skyrocketed hopes for the movie industry, the summer saw expectations collapse again with flop after flop—King Arthur, The Mummy, Transformers, and Pirates of the Caribbean, to name but a few. It was enough to have many doomsayers predict once more the end of theatrical distribution.

Yet, somehow, things ended up relatively rosy as a whole. Indeed, the holiday season brought plenty of good cheer to studio accountants, and the movie gods smiled brightly enough to see 2017 close out to a projected $11.12 billion at the domestic box office, the third highest ever industry posting in the U.S. While this is still steeply down from 2016’s $11.4 billion, things could have been much worse, and almost were if not for a Christmas miracle: good movies that audiences were seeing in droves. Of course everyone and their mother watched Star Wars: The Last Jedi, which grossed $517 million all by itself in the final days of 2017. But nipping just at its heels by New Year is perhaps an even heartier boffo story: the dizzying success of Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle.

Once a derided and largely overlooked—as per social media echo chambers—gambit by Sony Pictures, this long delayed sequel to the 1995 Jumanji shared little in common with the 22-year-old classic, save for its brand name. This point of contention among the Twitter users, however, became one of the driving elements of its success. For Sony and director Jake Kasdan’s Jumanji was everything audiences want out of a holiday movie. It was all-ages popcorn entertainment that took a familiar name and IP, but did something wildly original with it. And for their troubles, the Dwayne Johnson-led jungle adventure managed to unearth a buried treasure of $186 million in North America alone as of New Year’s Day. Not bad for a film with a price tag (at least according to its studio) of $90 million.

As with many of the success stories of 2017, there is a lesson to be learned here that could prove the difference between the Jumanjis and The Mummys of the future. For Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle in and of itself is not that shocking of a concept. As mainstream global moviegoers continually vote with their money for more theme park-esque, four-quadrant properties with a familiar IP in the title, movie studios increasingly raid their own libraries for ancient brand names to dust off. Resurrecting Jumanji—a title that Sony and Columbia Pictures have long attempted to make a sequel to over multiple decades—is not all that different from Universal seeing if there is still life in The Mummy, or 20th Century Fox trying to get more mileage out of Planet of the Apes and Independence Day. Luckily for Sony though, the approach to reboot Jumanji pitched by Community’s Chris McKenna ended up closer to Apes than the other two, at least so far as it being a smart angle that audiences are responding to with enthusiasm.

A major reason for Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle’s success is that it’s in many ways a throwback to the kind of big budget moviemaking that was common in family entertainment when the original film came out. It is a simple, standalone movie that strives hard to make its singular story work, as opposed to servicing nostalgia for earlier films or attempting to birth a gargantuan shared universe that might never come to pass. It is, in short, a really well executed high-concept film, as opposed to a labored franchise kickoff.

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The crux of its setup is closer to Big than the original Jumanji, but like both of those films, it solidly unpacks the premise with maximum star wattage. In Welcome to the Jungle, the film forsakes the Hollywood logic that dictates a sequel must repeat what we saw before, often to diminishing results (examine this past summer’s Transformers and Pirates films for more). Instead it tells a new story that younger viewers can jump into without any baggage while keeping the minimum bit of fan service and ‘90s nostalgia that Millennials and Gen-Xers have come to demand in our post-Marvel, The Force Awakens, and Jurassic World era. However, unlike those pictures, or pale imitators such as DOA shared universe movies like The Mummy, there is no real desire by Kasdan and his studio to build a larger universe or even a cliffhanging sequel.

Welcome to the Jungle rather radically returns to the mindset of making the current movie the big event, and worrying about the sequel and endless spinoffs later. While that might sound like a foreign concept to current blockbuster watchers, it allows Welcome to the Jungle to just giddily revel in its basic premise: Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Jack Black, and Karen Gillan are playing cartoonish video game avatars who are being inhabited by the minds of teenagers. The Rock plays against type as a nervous and introverted nerd; Hart attempts to portray an alpha male athlete; Gillan is a wallflower trapped inside Lara Croft’s scantily clad physique; and Black gets to steal the whole show as a suburban, social media princess now looking like… well, Jack Black.

Like its 1980s and ‘90s body swapping forebearers, it makes no bones about its silly conceit and instead milks it with shots of Johnson staring wide-eyed at his biceps or Black biting his lower lip while trying to flirt with one of the Jonas Brothers. The movie commits to its singular story and proves that movie stars still have a certain cache, especially when they’re as well cast and harmonic as Jumanji’s leading quartet.

To be sure, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is no comedy classic, nor is it one of the great films of 2017. But its box office run is one of the great lessons of the year. Audiences still like simple, all-ages entertainment that is not at all determined to repeat beat-for-beat what its predecessors did, much less set-up an endless array of “shared” spinoffs. While that latter approach has proven to be successful for a few select IPs (those often with a pre-existing media empire that fans have invested years of their lives into obsessing over), it has been anathema to moviegoers when shoehorned into nearly every summer movie whose goal is less to tell a complete story than it is to be a good television-styled pilot for films down the road.

As with the biggest success stories of the 2017 box office that didn’t come out of the Mouse House, the movies that really left a mark on ticket buyers in 2017—be it war films or socially conscious horror movies, euphoric musicals or delightful car chase thrillers—tended to stand on their own two feet and give audiences something they don’t see very often in wide releases: originality.