JUMANJI: WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE
By Nathan Evans
Critics will often deride a film by comparing the subject of their ire to a video game. ‘Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle’ attempts to subvert that criticism by embracing it and actually structuring itself as one. The result of this approach is a film that, while it can be a lot of fun, ultimately has no weight. Granted it’s unfair to expect much heft from a film that’s a vague sequel to a twenty-two year old movie that was forgettable in the first place, but where you might expect fluff, ‘Jumanji’ only gives you filler.
‘Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle’ works as an inverse of the original Robin Williams film. It revolves around the titular magic board game that’s filled to the brim with deadly and exotic jungled themed adventures. Where the original film’s plot concerned itself with the contents of the game spilling over into the real world, this time around our real world protagonists are sucked into the game. The protagonists in question are a hodgepodge of high school archetypes: a video game obsessed, cowardly nerd named Spencer (Alex Wolff), a somewhat dimwitted jock nicknamed “The Fridge” (Ser’Darius Blaine), a self absorbed teen queen named Bethany (Madison Iseman), and an awkward, bookworm-ish outcast named Martha (Morgan Turner). For various reasons the disparate members of the group find themselves serving detention together when they come across the game in the AV room they’re tasked with cleaning. Looking for a respite from their dull task, the group makes the mistake of turning the game on and they’re instantly absorbed by it.
Once in the game we’re introduced to our characters chosen avatars; a collection of some of today’s most popular entertainers. Spencer finds himself trapped in the muscular body of Doctor Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson), the normally towering Fridge is transformed into the diminutive zoologist, Franklin “Mouse” Finbar (Kevin Hart), the curvy Bethany is transformed into the curvy (in a much different way) cartographer Shelley Oberon (Jack Black), and the meek Martha inhabits the body of the gorgeous and badass martial arts expert Ruby Roundhouse (‘Dr. Who’ and ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’s’ Karen Gillan). Leaning on Spencer’s familiarity with the gaming world, the group learn they’re tasked with saving the world of the game from the evil influence of an explorer who’s been corrupted by a magical gem that imbues him with the ability to control the jungle’s animals. That explorer turned low rent sorcerer is portrayed by none other than Bobby Cannavale; an actor who I’ve seen in several films now and have no idea how or why he’s famous.
The adventure plot of ‘Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle’ is almost entirely nonsensical and generic. The various puzzles our characters are tasked with solving lack any kind of logic, and the action sequences are akin to a stunt show at Universal Studios. To top it all off, everything’s captured by a camera that has no sense of visual flair or dynamism. It almost feels as if director Jake Kasdan didn’t even bother to look at the footage that most definitely must’ve been captured by a second unit director that was too busy counting down the minutes to lunch to bother with crafting a memorable action set piece.
Thankfully the focus of the film isn’t the action sequences, but the character moments between our unlikely band of teenage misfits and the body swapping humor that arises. While I’m admittedly writing from the perspective of a now thirty year old man (*sigh*), the teenage voices at play within the film feel authentic. There’s a rather truthful dynamic between young Spencer and The Fridge: former childhood friends who are now estranged by their disparate social statuses. We also get a peek at the rampant self importance our current social media climate encourages amongst the teen set with Bethany’s obsessive clutch on her smartphone. Even after she finds herself trapped within Jack Black’s body, her main concern is being reunited with her mobile device.
Martha’s growth arc is less deftly handled. It seems the filmmakers were attempting to riff on Ally Sheedy’s freak turned knockout transformation in John Hughes’ ‘The Breakfast Club’ by making some sort of statement about the objectification of women. Martha’s avatar Ruby is rather scantily clad for a jungle adventurer, a point the film goes out of its way to make fun of right before it turns around and leans into it. While I’d probably be considered a male pig by most feminists, even I felt confused by the statement the movie was trying to make about the subject. You can’t admonish society for objectifying women, then turn around and feature several extended, exploitative shots of Gillan’s backside and bare midriff.
Though the film drops the ball on that front, it excels in the scenes that feature Blacks’ Bethany. Even when he isn’t the focus of the film, Black is always inhabiting the spirit of a teenage girl; whether it be through his mannerisms or the teen slang that feels surprisingly natural coming from his mouth. There are even a few scenes that deal with the character’s nether regions that would come off as crude in another director’s hands, but are genuinely funny here.
While this review may carry a disproportionately negative tone, I don’t want to savage ‘Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle’. Though the story plot is forgettable, the character plots are fun and somewhat truthful. There are hints of a self love message that’s pretty sweet, and there are a few belly laughs to be had. The chemistry between Johnson and Hart is engaging and put to much better use here than it was in last year’s abysmal ‘Central Intelligence’, and Jack Black outright steals the show. Karen Gillan is sufficiently badass and the teen cast gets the job done.
Nick Jonas pops up midway through the film, filling the Alan Parrish archetype Robin Williams portrayed in the original film. He’s yet another teen that’s been trapped inside the game for over two decades. While I’m not familiar with his music or his other acting performances, he’s fine enough here and is a welcome addition to the cast.
‘Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle’ isn’t a bad film. It’s also not a good film. It is, however, a film; two hours of sounds, images and plot that’s entertaining enough if you don’t bother thinking about it too hard. While you’ll most assuredly forget about it the second you leave the theater, you probably won’t feel like you’ve wasted your time. Which is probably the most we could’ve hoped for in a movie that really has no reason to exist, that pays tribute to a film only the most nostalgic of 90’s kids still care about.
RATING: C -OR- 3 OUT OF 5
For more reviews and updates on all things Nerd on Film follow me on Twitter (@nerdonfilm) and like the Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/nerdonfilm/