“A game for those who seek to find a way to leave their world behind.”
Nobody likes a know-it-all or a smart ass. That is unless you yourself are one. But some of the most intriguing people I’ve ever met – in the classroom, the workplace, at a bar, or a short spat with a personable stranger – have been those who carry their know-how with very little extravagance or can-do effort. Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle does the same, only audibly louder, guarding its quiet presence and studied knowledge with a disciplined sense of world building inside and out. And as a “Ripley’s Believe It or Not!” moviegoing exhibit, everything somehow gels in a firecracker of a film that’s far better than it ever deserved to be. As Winter ushers its way into the calendar’s end, this film provides a healthy dose of a whimsically warm flu-shot necessary to fight off the cold box-office months to come. More fun movies have been few and far between in 2017.
By its title alone, you might assume Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is bad fan-fiction summoned to life by a nostalgic senior discount holder stuck in the middle with youth. But this film is a sequel – both spiritually and literally – building off of the critically poorly received and ahead of its time picture Jumanji. The two couldn’t be any more different. While the visual effects from 1995 are hilariously dated, the movie grounds itself in practicality. And because the story brings the CGI wild (from monkeys to elephants to spiders to crocs) into a recognizable realm, they become more terrifying not because they look real, but because great performers like Robin Williams and Bonnie Hunt convince us that they are real. When Williams’ aged Alan Parish finally exits the game, we see the trauma through his eyes and rabid reactions. It’s basically a PTSD drama like Full Metal Jacket meets the adventurous streak of Swiss Family Robinson, and Jumanji made kids wet the bed because it allowed imaginations to run like a stampede. More often than not, the less we see the better.
Here’s where the two films vastly differ, and if I’m being honest, where I thought the latest would be an abysmal failure. Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle butters its toast with old clichés and gulps its plot down like a glass of Sunny D, chaperoning its four Breakfast Club high school students to the depths of detention hell. Spencer (Alex Wolff) lathers up in Purell as if it’s cologne and carries his EpiPen everywhere. The jock Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain) needs to pass class and asks Spence, his friend before puberty struck, to write his papers. Their ruse is as successful as the Wiley Coyote. Bethany (Madison Iseman) is going through a breakup and is a cell-phone obsessed, self-absorbed brat, so much so that I’d believe it if she didn’t know her precious handheld had an outward facing camera. She’s incarcerated for being selfish. Then there’s Martha (Morgan Turner). Eyes set on Princeton and a rain cloud hovering over her secluded self-superiority, Martha refuses to participate in gym and insults the teacher. A reprimand comes quickly. All four end up in detention. All four play an old video game together. And all four must become friends. Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle packs the subtlety of a Mother forcing her child to go invite the kid hanging in the corner to play, but also has all of the maternal grace. This film sure forces feelings, but most importantly, we feel them.
Too many movies like this one, whether they’re from recycled properties of the past or dopey-eyed reinventions, prioritize plot points over character development. From a writing perspective, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is quite a successful endeavor. In the game, Spencer becomes the hulking and unresistable Dr. Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson). Fridge is shrunken down to expert zoologist Mouse’s (Kevin Hart) size. The tepid Martha inhabits the bad-ass Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan). And in quite possible my favorite and gender-bending body-swap moment since Your Name, Bethany becomes the “curvy” male cartographer Shelly Oberon (Jack Black). Granted, once inside the game, there’s a villain (Bobby Cannavale) as forgettable as the Mario Bros.’ nemesis Bowser. Life-saving revelations appear out of thin air. And the very last shot feels more like a tacked on earmark than a worthwhile ending. Despite those grievances (and a few too many admittedly funny penis jokes), Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is as superficially cool and emotionally warm as its PG-13 rating allows.
Johnson and his trademark eyebrow soar as a game avatar, and I’d argue that it’s the role best suited for his brand. He’s larger than life – in terms of physicality and personality – and playing a leader of men suits his gargantuan charisma. On the other hand, Kevin Hart’s creative wheels normally run like a hamster on a wheel. Here though, he’s just a funny piece in the puzzle, and for once his manner is reasonably tamed. Karen Gillan nails her role as an Ally Sheedy type embodied by a literal knockout. Even Nick Jonas (great in last year’s Goat), revives a dead character with depth. But the real star of this bombastic side-show is Jack Black. He’s a grown man, playing an imaginary man inhabited by a teenage girl, and the controlled, broken nuances he adds into his voice and the prissy way he carries himself makes me think he could star in a Mrs. Doubtfire remake (I don’t want that to happen, but I can picture it). Director Jake Kasdan fine-tunes a smart script that fills every possible plot-hole with hilariously obvious observations that are poured as thick as cement, and he embraces the ridiculous nature of the film itself, squeaking a “message movie” into a big action blockbuster. That message is one of change and kindness and selflessness, and this treasure trove of a film is one of the few items in the toy aisle to be enjoyed by grown-ups and young adults alike. Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle prods and chases its audience, and I’d be lying if I wasn’t wearing a grin when it practically reaches out to say, “you’re it!”
“You get one life. You decide how you’re gonna spend it.”
Rating: 4 out of 5