This is a guest post from Tyler, Rii’s husband, who has strong feelings about Van Pelt:
Rii and I recently watched Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle. It was a lot better than I ever expected a sequel made 23 years after the original to be. While the original will probably always be my favorite of the two, I enjoyed the sequel and feel totally comfortable with it being a Jumanji movie.
Unlike certain other franchises I could mention…
My one major complaint is how terribly this movie handled Van Pelt. You see, in the original, Van Pelt was a lot of things. He was enigmatic. He was cool. He even got some good comedic beats. But more than anything, two particular qualities of Van Pelt stand out. Van Pelt was terrifying. And more importantly, Van Pelt was symbolically resonant.
What do I mean by that? Well, if you’ll remember, one of the first things that happens in the movie is Alan having a fight with his father about what it means to be a man. Then at the end, you see Alan’s growth by showing him facing his father “as a man” (honestly, there are a lot of things I would like to say about the accuracy of how this movie portrays what it means to be a man, but I digress). What makes Van Pelt so great as a villain is that he embodies this conflict that Alan must overcome. Frequently as Alan runs away from him, Van Pelt calls after him to “face me like a man”, and the climax of the movie occurs when Alan stops running and faces him. The real kicker here, though, is that the same actor who portrays Alan’s father plays Van Pelt, underscoring his relevance to the underlying conflict.
In storytelling there is an idea of the distinction between a plot conflict and a thematic conflict. For example, in Return of the Jedi the final showdown in the Emperor’s throne room consists of a plot conflict of Luke fighting Vader and then Palpatine and (more importantly) a thematic conflict of Luke trying to redeem his father. Both kinds of conflicts are important, and crucially it is extremely satisfying to an audience when both conflicts resolve at nearly the same time. Contrast Return of the Jedi where the two conflicts end at the same time as Vader chooses the light and kills Palpatine with the ending to The Return of the King where the plot conflict of destroying Sauron is resolved quite a long time before the thematic conflict of Frodo’s struggle against the allure of the ring, which he doesn’t resolve until he finally steps on the boat to head into the west.
There’s a reason a lot of people complain that The Return of the King had too many endings.
In the original Jumanji Van Pelt represents both the thematic and the plot conflict, so defeating him resolves both at once and feels incredibly satisfying. The new Van Pelt is just generic evil guy #3, creepy/gross variant. Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is a film about choosing how you are going to live your life rather than letting the circumstances of life choose for you (look no further than the Principal’s speech before they go to detention, and Spencer’s arc of not needing his video game character’s bravery boost to do brave things). How does Van Pelt, ostensibly the main antagonist and villain of this film tie into that thematic conflict?
If you said, “He doesn’t,” then congratulations! You get nothing, just like his relevance to the character arcs in the movie.
Maybe part of it is that I’m much older when seeing this for the first time, but this Van Pelt has none of the terrifying presence of the original, and the fact that he is so disconnected from the thematic conflict of the movie means that I don’t really care when they defeat him. Honestly, it would have been an almost trivial exercise to remove him from the movie entirely. And that is not a great thing to have be true about your villain.
Now not every villain has to be tied to the thematic conflict of the story per se, but I cannot think of a single great villain off the top of my head who hasn’t been. So when examining your villain, try to see how they tie in not just to what is going on in the story, but also how they tie into the underlying conflict behind that. And if the answer is “they don’t,” try to see if you can change that. Because it will make their defeat all that more effective.