How ‘Jumanji’ surprised ‘Star Wars'
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson sat down with USA TODAY's Bryan Alexander and shared the inspiration behind his 'Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle' character, Dr. Smolder Bravestone, and how his own teenage past helped him master the role.
Movies didn't dare take on the force of Star Wars while The Force Awakens (2015) and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016) were busily obliterating box-office records.
Opening just five days after The Last Jedi, Jumanji shadowed Star Wars until — shockingly — the reboot of the 1995 Robin Williams movie took the top spot in its third weekend with $37.2 million.
Still far behind in total box office ($245.6 million to Last Jedi’s $572.7 million, according to Monday's final figures), Jumanji has exceeded even the most giddily optimistic expectation.
“I knew Jumanji was going to be a hit,” says Scott Mendelson, box-office analyst for Forbes. “But I never thought it would be taking on The Last Jedi like this."
Dwayne Johnson, Jack Black, Kevin Hart, Karen Gillan and Nick Jonas star in 'Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle,' the story of video-game heroes stuck in a real game.
So how did Jumanji succeed against the holiday box-office Death Star?
It hits the right notes: Director Jake Kasdan made an action film featuring high-schoolers transported into a deadly video game — all wrapped in the wish-fulfillment concept of a nerdy gamer who turns into 6-foot-4 avatar Dr. Smolder Bravestone (Johnson).
“Playing teenagers trapped in adult bodies, movies like Big,13 Going on 30 did it correctly," says Johnson. "If not done correctly, you can go off the rails quickly in terms of performance. ... But once I wrapped this movie, I was confident."
Jumanji received decent reviews (77% of critics gave it a "fresh" rating at aggregate site Rotten Tomatoes). More importantly, 90% of audiences liked it.
A cast with chemistry, appeal: Johnson and Hart, who previously proved their buddy-movie chops in 2016's hit Central Intelligence, are joined by Karen Gillan and a scene-stealing Jack Black (as a teenage beauty stuck in a middle-age man's body).
The combination of big stars and a story with broad reach made Jumanji "the perfect box-office beast," drawing all audience demographics, says Paul Dergarabedian, senior box-office analyst for comScore. "They even added Nick Jonas for more youngster appeal.”
It's the right season for family films: Between most schools taking an extended holiday break and the brutal weather, Jumanji (along with The Last Jedi) has served as a needed oasis for families.
"Families want comedy and that escapism Jumanji provides, especially when you’re freezing, as most of America is," says Jeff Bock, senior box-office analyst for Exhibitor Relations. "Jumanji is just going to continue riding through January. The biggest question is when Johnson can schedule a sequel, which will happen."
The zany promotion never stopped: Johnson has continually talked up Jumanji to his 12.4 million Twitter and 98.4 million Instagram followers, from the film's Hawaiian set to presentations at CinemaCon, the trade show for theater owners.
The cast has bantered through countless publicity appearances — including The Ellen DeGeneres Show and a media event where Black and Jonas shot an impromptu spoof music video for an unofficial Jumanji theme song.
The movie's Dec. 11 Hollywood premiere featured Johnson driving the stars to the red carpet in a rickety Jumanji safari vehicle, before he posed holding girlfriend Lauren Hashian's baby bump (after tweeting the happy pregnancy news a few hours earlier).
The stars are still stirring social-media buzz and headlines during the film's worldwide promotional efforts. (Latest stop: China.)
"Jumanji has just kept on going," says Dergarabedian. "It's the success story of 2018."