Jumanji director on Rise of Skywalker clash: 'Star Wars is its own thing'

In a disastrous year for sequels, can Jumanji: The Next Level repeat the first film's surprise success?

Richard Trenholm Former Movie and TV Senior Editor
Richard Trenholm was CNET's film and TV editor, covering the big screen, small screen and streaming. A member of the Film Critic's Circle, he's covered technology and culture from London's tech scene to Europe's refugee camps to the Sundance film festival.
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Richard Trenholm
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From left, Jack Black, Karen Gillan, Awkwafina and Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson star in Jumanji: The Next Level.


In late 2017, a remake of 1990s kids film Jumanji faced the unenviable challenge of opening while Star Wars blockbuster The Last Jedi was blowing up the box office. But Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle more than held its own, becoming a surprise smash. And now, the sequel Jumanji: The Next Level is looking to repeat the trick as it opens less than two weeks before new Star Wars epic The Rise of Skywalker.

Along with the goodwill from the previous movie, The Next Level benefits from star names Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Karen Gillan and Jack Black. But even without the challenge from Star Wars Episode IX, even the most well-known franchises have had a very tough year. When I spoke to Jumanji co-writer and director Jake Kasdan in London, he admitted that the producers had concerns as well-worn franchises like X-Men, Terminator and Charlie's Angels bombed hard in 2019.

"We've been living in a Hollywood world for the last several years where people want familiar brands that have name recognition," says Kasdan, "and yet there have been some problems with that program this year... Everybody's conscious of that. But from my point of view, all I can worry about is making the best Jumanji that we can come up with."


Kevin Hart (left) and Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson re-team for the Jumanji sequel.


For the new movie, in theaters now, the film's heroes are joined by elder statesmen Danny DeVito and Danny Glover. Leaving their failing "real-world" bodies behind, their aging characters jump into the titular video game and find themselves inhabiting the much more limber bodies of Dwayne Johnson and company, with comic results. 

In the original movie, the in-game adventure was filmed first so the teenage cast molded their "real-world" personas around Johnson, Black, Gillan and Hart's performances. For the sequel, scheduling issues meant the real-world sequences came first, and the in-game cast clearly have a lot of fun mimicking DeVito's and Glover's voices and mannerisms as they pretend to be creaky seniors getting to grips with a new body.

"The road back into it was illuminated by this big idea of changing up what everybody's playing," says Kasdan. "Suddenly it started to feel fresh and new and funny to me again -- the thought of bringing in these gentlemen at a very different part of their lives."


Director Jake Kasdan (right) joins his Jumanji stars Alex Wolff (left) with Danny DeVito and Danny Glover.

Kevin Winter

Kasdan insists he didn't think about a sequel while making the first film, which became one of  Sony's highest grossing films ever. That meant a sequel was in demand very quickly.

"We wanted it to come out at Christmas, but we also knew we might not make it," says Kasdan. "So early on we said: Let's give it a try, but make sure we're not compromising anything we're going to regret. Then at the point where I felt like maybe we had a shot, then it starts to gather this momentum."

Kasdan is philosophical about the competition with Star Wars: Episode IX -- The Rise of Skywalker, which is set for release on Dec. 19 in the UK and Dec. 20 in the US.

"I don't really think of it like we're going up against Star Wars," he says. "Star Wars is its own unique thing in the world, almost beyond movies. Everyone in the world is going to go see it, and we don't have any illusion that they're not. We just hope they'll come to see Jumanji too!"

Kasdan has a family connection to Star Wars: His father, Laurence Kasdan, co-wrote The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens, as well as co-writing Solo with Jake's brother Jon. There's even a sneaky Star Wars reference in Jumanji: The Next Level, but Jake says he harbors no ambitions to write or direct a Star Wars story.

"I feel like I have the most perfect seat for Star Wars," he says. "I love those movies and I look forward to the next one. I have some connectedness to it through my family, so I root for it. But I think that's a perfect relationship to it."

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Originally published Dec. 10.