Before we begin, let’s bring all parties to the table, peacefully. When discussing Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, the soft-sequel, hard-reboot to 1995’s Jumanji, there are clearly two camps of thought. One camp will profess a love and nostalgia for the original, Robin Williams vehicle, and not really understand how you can take a movie about a board game come to life and replace it with a story about a people being put in a video game. The other camp will gape at the assembled comedy all-star team (adorned with some ample eye candy) and the accompanying overuse of Guns N’ Roses in the marketing campaign, and declare that this reboot-sequel-hybrid looks like a lot of fun.
Or, doing so imagines a divisiveness in an audience that’s just whelmed, not over or under, and no one cares that much. In either case, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle attempts to appease both camps, imagined or not, through careful allusions placed throughout the film, acknowledging the existence of its predecessor and paying homage to it, while also attempting to take advantage of the talent of its current stars.
In doing so, it half-succeeds in both regards; I can believe that Jumanji, the fictional game-come-tormentor-come-life-instructor, evolves to find a way to tempt people to play it. However, many of the other allusions seemed forced, and hardly tie the two films together. Additionally, while the talent of the cast is palpable, they’re really the only thing keeping this story afloat, as the narrative itself is weak.
Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle
Director: Jake Kasdan
Release Date: December 20, 2017
[Contains minor spoilers]
Pulling Karen Gillan, Dwayne Johnson, Jack Black, and Kevin Hart together in an ensemble comedy cast is a no-brainer. These are talented actors who know how to make an audience laugh. Granted. If you’re just happy to see them onscreen together, you’ll probably leave the theater satisfied. Providing them the opportunity to explore the “body switch” trope and, by and large, run wild with it, is a good idea. When Jennifer Garner does it, it’s one thing, when Jack Black and The Rock do it, it’s quite another.
No one does it better here than Karen Gillan. It’s possible that her body-switch counterpart, Morgan Turner, mimicked Gillan, but I don’t think so. Gillan embodies what a person being trapped inside a new body should embody: new form, same mannerisms and speech patterns. At times, it was uncanny. She must have spent some time with the younger actress, studying her to get this right. Frankly, it was impressive. Jack Black pulls it off second best, but his parroting seemed more to encompass a generic entitled teenage drama-queen than his specific counterpoint, played to crowd-pleasing perfection by Madison Iseman (who has too little screen time to get much more credit).
Dwayne Johnson brings it at moments (wait for the squirrels), but is often channeling himself more than the insecure teenager he’s supposed to be, beginning with his very first shot and the production of ‘The Rock’ eyebrow raise. He’s having fun with it though. And poor Kevin Hart. Well, he’s just Kevin Hart, or maybe Kevin Hart’s perpetually indignant outbursts just deliver that vibe. In fairness, his counterpart, ‘Fridge’ has less depth than the other teenage counterparts, and doesn’t necessarily provide him a lot of material to work with.
It’s worth noting who delivers this performance successfully as watching the four stars interact while embodying their lesser-known counterparts is the highlight of the film (along with some one-liners that hit the mark).
The story is circumspect and strains believability even within the realms of surrealism. The backstory on how Jumanji transforms from board game to video game is well done; it diminished personal concerns on how this would work, at least enough so that I happily rolled with it. Less well-explained is how this video game our heroes find themselves in is so plotless, meandering, and ultimately lacking stakes of any kind.
The first Jumanji, while fun, playful, and fit for families, is not without a sense of imminent danger. Furthermore, it courses with both stated and implied undercurrents of real danger, and dark, vibrant evil. Think on it for a moment. Robin Williams’ character of Alan Parrish is trapped inside a game for 26 years. In detailing his ordeal, he hints at a struggle for survival that has shaped him as a man, placed his life in constant peril, and left his sanity questionably in the balance. In this continuation of the story, Nick Jonas shows up as the laughable “Seaplane”, a teenager who’s been missing for twenty years while trapped inside Jumanji, who chooses not to face the game and instead live a life drinking his expertly-crafted Margaritas (one of his videogame character’s skills).
In fact, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle lacks suspense, completely. Embracing the idea that our heroes are inside a video game, it’s immediately revealed that they each have three lives (one or two of these moments are explored with thorough creativity and surprise to make them enjoyable, though both have been spoiled in trailers). Not only are the threats less threatening, but there’s no real worry as there’s always another life to live. Of course, we do reach a point when people get low on lives, but by then characters have killed each other intentionally enough that the effect is dull acceptance that they’re going to make it out of the game in one piece—this is not the sort of movie where teenagers are going to die; there’s never any doubt that our heroes are going to ‘beat the game.’ Try to ignore how much of this movie is just the four kids standing around talking to each other. I dare you.
This isn’t dwelling on what’s said of our teenage protagonists as they sacrifice each other’s video game lives because they’re annoyed or because it suits their strategy to win. Psychologically, what does this say about them as sentient human beings? Who cares! Wouldn’t it be funny to see Kevin Hart push the Rock off a cliff to his death? Hells yes. Especially if the Rock comes back around and lands on Kevin Hart’s head. High five team—we just wrote the shit out of that.
Coupled with a human villain who has none of the psychotic intent so latent in the comic archetype of white hunter Van Pelt from the original. That man would murder children if given the opportunity, and despite the family nature of the film, it wasn’t clear he wouldn’t until the movie ended. At the least, I accepted a high probability that Robin Williams would die. The usually talented Bobby Cannavale is wasted here as a trumped-up Emo jungle warlord who leads a pack of motorcycle-riding, idiot NPCs straight out of Mad Max, who mostly just sits about shouting things like ‘Get them!’ or ‘Kill them all!’ while insects crawl in and out of his face (done long ago, and much better, in The Mummy films).
And then there are the jungle creatures, the animals. Let’s ignore the fact that we’ve come 22 years since Jumanji and movie special effects have progressed immensely in that time. Let’s say that director Jake Kasdan populated this Jumanji with animals of the same quality that we got in 1995, animals that served a point. This movie lacks them to a point of confusion. Aren’t we in the jungle this time? Wouldn’t the animal threats be more extensive here? Where are the things that Alan Parrish warned us we’d never even dreamed of? In the market “bazaar?” Perhaps in Seaplane’s Jungle cabana / Margaritaville? (And how the hell has he survived for 20 years in a jungle when his weakness is mosquitos, while Kevin Hart’s Moose —pronounced Mouse— Finbar can’t go a day without eating his weakness, cake.)
Instead of relying on the things that could have made this film a visual and psychological thrill ride, Kasdan relies on cheap, hackneyed villains and henchmen trounced up with “extreme” sports elements and literal helicopter rides to satisfy what I can only assume are perceived as the banal needs of an idiot audience too unsophisticated to demand more from a franchise name some of them might actually like.
If you’re going to follow the formula of the original, why change the things that made it best for things that seem so uninspired?
Robin Williams was missed during the film, but the current cast is more than adequate to fill his shoes. It’s not the cast that left me wanting more from this movie, it was the lack of inspiration in every other facet, including the anticlimactic young love triumphs over all moment at the film’s conclusion, complete with the least memorable orchestral romance theme you’ve ever heard (even if you don’t remember it) and a 360-camera spin around our two nerds who realize they like each other just fine, even with the hot bodies of Karen Gillan and Dwayne Johnson.