Movies like Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle often feel like dull, hollow, naked cash grabs written by so many writers that we feel more like we’re watching a death by committee than an actual misfire. But every once in awhile it works. The cast of Casablanca famously never knew what movie they were making from one scene to the next. I’m not saying Jumanji is anything at all like Casablanca in quality so much as say sometimes a slickly over produced big budget comedy adventure can come out the other side in much better shape than other films of its ilk.
I quite like the notion of the game being somewhat sentient and sensitive to the way games evolve over time. When the game is first discovered on a beach it finds its way into the hands of a young boy. He tosses it aside uninterested. Overnight the game morphs into a gaming system to lure the boy into playing with it. It adds an air of timelessness to the game for a modern audience. One day maybe, if the boondoggle known as Virtual Reality ever truly succeeds will the game morph into a pair of goggles and gloves?
The story is simple. We have Spencer (Alex Wolff) the shy nerdish hypochondriac. The Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain) who is the smooth laid back jock. Martha (Morgan Turner) is our shy nerdish girl who lacks any friends or social skills. Which leaves us with Bethany (Madison Iseman) the shallow self centered queen bee of the school.
In the vein of every high school movie ever since the dawn of Breakfast Club, the four teens each get detention and are forced to spend the Saturday together pulling staples out of magazines so they can be recycled. While in the basement, they stumble on an old cartridge video game system. Adolescents in movies being among the most curious of course plug it in. The game inside the console is, of course, Jumanji.
The four teens are then sucked into the game and into the bodies of the characters that they chose. Alex becomes Dr. Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson). Fridge becomes Franklin ‘Mouse’ Finbar (Kevin Hart). Martha finds herself as the svelte Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan). Poor Bethany is horrified to discover she is Professor Sheldon Oberon (Jack Black).
Soon after, they find themselves being tasked with saving all of Jumanji from the villainous Van Pelt (Bobby Cannavale). The quartet must return the giant emerald known as the Jaguar’s eye to it’s rightful resting place. Cannavale, who has little to do but to strut about and snarl, is as always a pleasure to watch. Cannavale is of that rare breed of actors that whenever he shows up it’s always unexpected but always welcomed. He has an outsized energy about him that somehow always manages to fit the part and tone of the movie.
Throughout Jumanji, we never really get the feeling that the game itself is malignant or evil. It seems much more an object of chaos forcing people to realize the power and ramifications of their choices. Unlike the original, the game itself doesn’t seem to be a harbinger of doom. This is partially due to the fact that in the original, the game is bursting into the real world and disrupting reality. In the new Jumanji because of the video game aspect the world is largely cordoned off from reality and is much more contained.
This allows for a less than stringent adherence to the laws of physics and more of a tether to video game logic. The group learns of their quest from Nigel (Rhys Darby) a NPC (Non Player Character). A character whose sole purpose is to provide exposition to each of the characters as well as to lay out the backstory as to why the quest is necessary. Jumanji works because in an era where so many action movies feel like a video game but somehow feel rote and pedantic, it behaves like an actual video game and somehow never feels forced or trite.
Jake Kasdan and his platoon of writers lucked out with a charismatic and engaging cast. Each one playing it broad but still finding time for little moments of character work. Johnson is as game as ever to play up his larger than life persona. But here, he peppers it with moments that remind us that inside he’s a terrified teenager. There’s a running gag involving his propensity to giving smoldering looks to the camera that is listed among his character strengths. It’s a gag that is used just enough before it starts to become tiresome.
Gillan’s Martha is forced to prance about in a ridiculous outfit that is sadly all too common in video games. She is horrified that her body is so blatantly on display. While it’s meant to be a parody, the movie only spends a line or two really calling attention to it. Where Jumanji surprises us though is how effectively it takes down the myth of the ‘hot woman who’s a fighter but ultimately is forced to trade on her desirability’ trope. Being the only woman in the group she is forced to be the ‘distraction’ and has to be taught how to flirt.
The scene has some great slapstick comedy by Gillan. But it’s payoff is Martha realizing she’s a bad ass and doesn’t have to seduce anybody, she can just kick their ass. It’s moments like these that keep Jumanji afloat. Kasdan and his team utilize the broadness of slapstick to allow for satire to emerge in unexpected places. Refreshingly, Jumanji loves it’s characters.
Take Jack Black’s portrayal of Bethany. His portrayal of both Sheldon Oberon and as Bethany is fearless and hilarious. It’s a role that could have easily become irritating or mean spirited, but instead Bethany is the standout. The vain popular girl who, while maybe a little self-centered, is just as scared and surprisingly giving and caring as anyone else on the team.
The group stumbles upon the boy from the beginning in the game Alex (Nick Jonas). Shockingly the movie doesn’t shy away from the instant and clear attraction Bethany has for him. For a movie as mainstream as Jumanji the Bethany/Alex relationship is daring just for the sheer acknowledgement of it. When Alex hugs Bethany, after she saves him, she is shocked to discover she has an erection. Two men showing affection causing one of them to get a boner is still quite shocking even by our modern twenty first century sensibilities. Her horror, and even the joke, isn’t the erection itself so much as that she can’t control it.
Among all these well-written and decently fleshed out characters Hart’s Fridge is given the least room to grow. First off, his name is the Fridge. We never learn his real name. All the other characters before they get sucked into the game have a moment that defines and sums up who they are. Fridge, even though he has multiple scenes, is given precious little to do besides enforce the jock stereotype.
Consequently, of all the characters, Finbar comes off more like a reigned in Kevin Hart performance than a real character. Hart’s performance isn’t bad, on the contrary this is the most I’ve enjoyed him since Central Intelligence. The problem is the others are allowed to play dual characters; the internal struggling with the external. Yet, Hart is barely allowed to play even one, though he largely succeeds.
It should also be noted that of the four writers Jumanji had for it’s screenplay, none were women. How much funnier and subversive would Black’s role have been, how much more bite would Gillan’s comments about her outfit, or indeed her discomfort at how people look at her, have been if even one woman was on that writing staff. There is an ocean of missed opportunity within that singular oversight. Not to mention, I wager that Hart’s underwritten character suffers largely because the voices telling story were white voices.
Still Kasdan has done something that is harder than it sounds: he actually made a remake. It would be unfair to compare the two simply because while one is a remake of the other, Jumanji is very much it’s own film. In some ways its more daring, while in others its more conventional.
Jumanji zips along with a joyous energy and a sparkle in it’s eye. It’s a slick action packed story with slim but effective storytelling. The moments of over the top slapstick humor never feels too big or out of place. In short, Jumanji is a summer blockbuster for the holidays.