Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle review
Jumanji was a board game that begat a 1995 film of same name in which Robin Williams has to save a bunch of children from Mother Nature retaking their upper-class suburb. Later, Zathura (2005) served as a weird spiritual sequel, but set in space.
The story of a board game with some weird cinematic tie-ins, which mostly existed in the days of different terrible stages of CGI, seems like an odd property to receive a sequel in 2017. From announcement to first trailer, I was dismissive with audible scoffing and the gnashing of teeth. Everything from the hyper-sexualized Lara Croft outfit it forces Karen Gillan into to the weird action set pieces and the “Welcome to the Jungle” subtitle just made this seem like the worst of what Hollywood brand exploitation could possibly be.
Dammit. I was wrong. This is one of my new favorite movies of all time, and probably the best videogame movie ever made. I’m so sorry, because I’m sure this news seems disorienting to you as well. You’re wrong. I’m right. I was wrong once too. You’ll get used to your new reality.
Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle opens in 1996 when the board game from the original film turns up and a high school stoner type ignores it because “Who plays board games?” While playing his Playstation, the board game adapts to a new videogame form, and sucks him into the world. 20 years later, a group of high school misfits are placed into detention on the same day because of a series of transgressions that highlight their personal failings.
But get this: some of these failing are also strengths? I know. It’s a series of twists.
Spencer is a nerd who misses the days when he and football star Anthony were best friends. Instead, Spencer has been demoted to writing his former friend’s homework. Bethany is a self-obsessed Instagram poster who may not be aware that other human beings exist. Martha is a wallflower whose outspokenness against gym class gets her in trouble. The four students are sent to spend the weekend cleaning out a storage unit deep within the school, where they find the abandoned videogame system with Jumanji. As a joke, they fire it up for a single game and randomly pick characters with different skill sets, before they get magically sucked into the world of Jumanji.
The meta jokes about skill sets aren't just winking nods to the audience, they are the basis for the structure and characters.
Inside the game, each character has taken on new form. Slight Spencer is now The Rock, a superhero badass with no weaknesses and a penchant for smoldering looks. Anthony is Kevin Hart, who is basically the inventory system as he carries “the backpack” and his character’s list of weaknesses literally includes “Strength.” As in, strength is one of his weaknesses. Whatever reaction you’re imaging Kevin Hart having to this information is exactly what you’ll see on screen. Wallflower Martha is now a scantily clad Karen Gillan, a bad-ass fighter with physical skillsets that border on overpowered. Finally, internet model Bethany has been turned into middle-aged fat white guy Jack Black and her skills in cartography do not make up for the trauma of suddenly having a set of genitals she does not want.
An NPC informs them of the rules of the game, despite his limited series of possible responses, and it’s here that I realized I was watching the Last Action Hero of videogame movies. The meta jokes about skill sets aren’t just winking nods to the audience, they are the basis for the structure and characters. It informs the writing and development to create an arc that brings to life the greatest joys of videogames.
For example, the first time Kevin Hart jumps on The Rock’s back to survive a battle is an excellent team-up attack, but most of the puzzles require the skills of the entire team in order to solve, and the mistakes they make in attempting to solve them (and resulting humor) remind me of the finest moments of my earliest experiences with games. At one point, a riddle about handling a deadly situation implies that not blinking might tame a poisonous snake. The girl who spends her life posing for elaborately staged Instagram “I woke up like this” shots thinks she’s got the skill sets required to stare the black mamba down. This is, of course, not the solution. But the team quickly improvises a different one.
Did you know that sometimes a margarita is the best way to defeat a black mamba? Look, it isn’t, but if your character’s set of skills involves Margarita Making, you work with what you’re given.
There’s a story here involving an evil tomb raider possessed by evil forces, played distractingly well by Bobby Cannavale of all people. His team of murderous machine gun mercenaries and his ability to control the animals of the forest makes for a background level antagonist that rivals the best C+ level threats from the lesser Marvel Cinematic Universe films. He’s gone super off the rails in pursuit of a power gem that the team of heroes must return to its rightful place to free the world of Jumanji from its evil curse. These infinity stones must be taken back to… look, you see what I’m saying. But thank god the story doesn’t matter because the combined cast is just overwhelmingly fun to watch.
There’s a series of three lives each character is given, which initially seems like too many opportunities to build real stakes. The filmmakers use each of these 12 opportunities to their fullest, including an awe-inspiring use of respawn that I genuinely wish I could apply to a game situation. There’s also the catch-up with the stoner kid from 1996 who has been stuck inside the game since the prologue. He’s an astounding bit of stunt casting I won’t spoil here, but also his ability to play the game with only one life remaining is markedly different than how fast and loose these new kids are treating the world around them. But with his handicap in mind, they still need to solve ancient traps and plot their way through Far Cry combat scenarios.
This film is Breakfast Club meets Uncharted.
This film is Breakfast Club meets Uncharted and if that doesn’t sell you, I promise you get to see Kevin Hart explode for the most asinine joke I have ever seen and I am in tears remembering it hours later.
At the halfway point of Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, one of my biggest notes was “foolish.” I loved what I was seeing, but each of the character revelations/developments seemed thoughtless or beneath the film. And then, as this went on, I realized I was the fool for completely forgetting who these characters were, despite their avatars. It’s about some broken, scared high school kids growing up real fast. Those messages, those moments, are fantastic. They’re not life-changing for the audience, but they are genuine and pretty wonderful to watch the cast work through collectively. It’s the best John Hughes film to include man-eating jaguars and motorcycle murder squads with rocket launchers and a man full of evil bugs.
It’s the best summer blockbuster you could hope for: all of The Rock from Santa Andreas in terms of action and all of the neurosis of The Rock from Southland Tales in a film that captures all of the heart from The Rock in Central Intelligence and Jack Black is possessed by a vapid teenager, but there’re also JRPG elements. How did this get made? Why did a summer movie come out in December? Nevermind, I’m not going to question it. Just go see the funniest videogame I’ve ever seen.