The very definition of a sequel nobody was asking for, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle has surprisingly proven to be something of a runaway critical success for Sony Pictures that will most likely deliver good box office results. The basic foundation of the story remains the same as the 1995 original, that of a number of players being sucked into a life-threatening board game that they must complete in order to enter real life again. However, for this modern version the board game is now a video game cartridge for a gaming console and the appearance of the players completely changes upon entering the game. This makes for some comedic moments as these kids discover that in the game they are all full-grown adults with varying characteristics and strengths. It is an ingenious evolution of the concept, really, modernizing it slightly yet at the same time keeping it firmly rooted in nostalgia.
Scoring the new film is Henry Jackman, who has in recent years become a remarkably in-demand composer. Kong: Skull Island is one of his most recent scores for a big budget tent-pole film, and in that he showed some real promise, delivering a suitably massive and at times breathlessly exciting score. There really was no doubt that he would write appropriate, good, fun score for this new film. However, he managed to one up his Kong score in just about every way, writing music that is at once modern yet old-fashioned and also a whole lot of fun. This is the type of music that you can imagine the composer having a blast writing and conducting. Even better is that Jackman’s music is also thematic and multilayered, which increases the score’s replay value significantly.
The key to great action/adventure scores is how well the music embodies those two characteristics, action and adventure. Thankfully, Jackman has delivered on both fronts in spades. Thematically, there are quite a few themes and motifs weaving their way in and out of several cues in the score. But there are two primary identities that will particularly appeal to fans of old fashioned, rip-roaring adventure music. These are introduced back-to-back in the appropriately titled “The Jumanji Overture”.
The first, which for the purposes of this review we will call the “Jumanji theme”, has a recognizable, rising three-note calling card and is utilized all over the score in varying ways. The motif is at its finest when it is employed in a broad, expansive, sometimes almost western style. It is a theme of mystery in ‘Digging up the Past’ and a comedic motif in “Flirting with Danger”. It pops up over several action cues as well, receiving cameos in fun cues like “The Bikers”, “Seaplane McDonough”, “Albino Rhinos”, and “Call Out Its Name”.
The second theme is the one listeners will leave this album whistling. It is an extremely memorable, old-fashioned, major-key theme that gives us the most deliriously fun moments on the album. It is one of those thematic identities whose harmonics are simple yet extremely satisfying with each listen. This theme is introduced at about 1:50 into “The Jumanji Overture” and serves as this this score’s crown jewel. It receives spectacular performances in two of the score’s best action cues “The Bikers” and “Albino Rhinos” as well as the climactic tracks towards the end of the album that will have you reaching for the repeat button. It is also utilized in the modern pop-influenced cue “Brantford High” and as something of a love theme in “First Kiss”.
Aside from the two main themes, this score’s greatest asset is its incredibly fun action music. A sense of high-flying, adventurous fun can be found all over the score’s many action cues. The climax, from “The Jaguars” through “Call Out Its Name” contains some of the finest music Henry Jackman has written to date; fun, energetic, vibrant, and full of life. Music like this gives me hope for the future of symphonic film scoring in an age when many of the most popular directors are slowly moving away from this method. Kudos to Jackman for seemingly going all out in this regard.
Unfortunately, while the action music and the themes are really stellar, the rest of the score varies in quality. There are some great individual moments, like the creative instrumentation in ‘The Bazaar’ and the Horner-like writing in a few of the quieter cues. But one of the issues in some of Jackman’s prior scores is that he can come up with some good themes, but the underscore apart from those themes tends to be quite dull. While the situation improves considerably with Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, there are still quite a few tedious and monotonous moments where very little seems to be happening in between the big action set pieces. All told, these are minor weaknesses that do not overshadow the score’s strengths.
Seasoned fans of film music will remember James Horner’s score for the original 1995 film. The original film is not exactly the most highly regarded piece of fantasy cinema, neither was Horner’s score very highly regarded in his oeuvre. Still, nostalgic fans will be disappointed that even though this is a sequel, none of Horner’s music or themes make an appearance here. Whether this was the composer’s choice or not will likely never be known, but it is disappointing all the same. There is some Horner-style music in such cues as “Digging Up the Past”, utilizing high tremolo strings, celesta, and flutes to form a musical passage that would have been right at home in a Horner fantasy score.
Jackman seems to have been inspired and influenced by A-list composers like Horner & John Williams. Unfortunately, in an age where many prominent Remote Control Productions composers have managed to find their own voice and style, it seems like Jackman might still be finding his. Whereas composers like Steve Jablonsky, Klaus Badelt and John Powell all have distinctly recognizable styles, there is nothing in this score that would have clued me in that Jackman wrote the music had I not known. However, Jackman is clearly improving as a composer with each passing score. Hopefully a style and sound all his own will prominently emerge over his next few projects.
Henry Jackman is clearly capable of composing a five-star masterpiece of modern film scoring. While Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is not quite that score, it is a testament to his increasing skill as a composer. Knockout themes, many exciting, fun, killer action cues as well as some cool individual moments put this score over the top and far outweigh any weaknesses. Henry Jackman fans will rejoice at this score, and action/adventure music fans will find much to love here. This is probably Henry Jackman’s finest film score to date and if he keeps on improving the way he has recently, the his future as a film composer is very exciting indeed.
Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle: Original Score is now available from Sony Classical.