Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (2017)

Directed by Jake Kasdan

jumanji_welcome_to_the_jungle_review_dwayne_johnson_karen_gillan

There was no reason to see Jumanji 2 in theaters, but I found myself alone for a night in San Diego with nothing to do and a movie pass card burning a hole in my wallet.  It was a Wednesday night, a couple weeks after the movie’s opening, yet there was a sizable, energetic crowd in the theater.  I haven’t seen a movie that received such a clear, positive reaction from the crowd like this since The Disaster Artist and before that I can’t remember.

Jumanji is silly, but don’t let that turn you off.  If you’re like I once was, you were jaded.  This is just another Hollywood cash grab where they take a preexisting property, load it with recognizable stars and jam the spectacle into a tired structure with diminishing returns.  But Jumanji was kind of great, and it was certainly funny.  Maybe that humor translated more in the theater (where there was one particular woman who occasionally laughed so hard it sounded like she could barely breathe) than it would at home, but hell, movies are meant to be played for an audience.  Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is a “welcome” reminder of the communal joy of cinema.  Boom.

First of all, I have fond memories of Jumanji, but it probably wasn’t all that good, right?  I was maybe 6 when I first saw it, and certain images are seared into my brain, but c’mon, it’s a movie about kids getting stuck inside a board game with a popular comedian as the star.  And I love Robin Williams, but the formula for this sequel is much the same as the one that went into that film.

Jumanji 2 follows a similar structure as the original, but that’s okay, it’s kind of expected.  No one is going to this movie to see it subvert the genre or revolutionize the way stories are told.  We expect them to get sucked into a game, fight their way through that game with familiar video game tropes, and then live to tell the tale.  And it’s kind of crazy that any movie like this can make us enjoy the ride when we know exactly where it’s going.

In this sequel there is less of a focus on one star (like Williams) and instead an effective use of an ensemble cast with names as big as Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Kevin Hart and Jack Black (who channels much of his role in Bernie into this film).  The fourth member of this ragtag group is played by Karen Gillan, someone I’m less familiar with.

So, the first sequence is bad, really bad.  We meet four high school kids, get a sense of how they relate to each other, and then they’re put in detention (a la The Breakfast Club) together.  These early scenes are stale and predictable.  We learn that the nerd used to be best friends with the jock but now just does his homework assignments for him.  The nerd is attracted to a female nerd who considers herself to be too good for the world around her.  Then, lastly, there’s the unbearable representation of the ‘selfie’ girl, the one who’s only concerned with her social media presence and whatnot.  It’s hard to watch if only because this is just a cliche character (like the others), but there are moments deliberately meant to be jokes which aren’t funny.  She takes a carefully-planned selfie and posts it as if she just rolled out of bed.  Okay.  We’re meant to laugh at her character because of how vapid she is, great, but it’s low hanging fruit.  Anyways, I guess the movie goes for the low hanging fruit with each character.  They’re all just types, because the more easily we understand them, the more quickly we can move on with the story, and still it’s taken me this long just to describe this.

The story picks up greatly as the characters find themselves stuck in the Jumanji video game.  Each of the four finds themselves stuck in the body of a video game character which contradicts their role in real life.  The nerd is now The Rock, the jock is Kevin Hart (cue height jokes), the nerdy girl is Karen Gillan (aka Lara Croft-lite), and the popular girl is Jack Black.  *I will refer to the characters by the actors’ names going forward.

Most of the jokes are in regards to the actors’ physical nature.  The Rock smolders and admires his own body.  Kevin Hart panics about losing the top two feet of his body, Karen Gillan looks the part of the kick-ass character but doesn’t know how to walk straight, and Jack Black expresses shock that he’s an overweight middle-aged man.  This could start to feel tired, but it somehow never did.

Kevin Hart and Jack Black get the most to do because they’re the most physical, broad comedians.  Kevin Hart is much the same person as you find in his standup, with the false bravado and self-mockery.  Jack Black plays the part of the popular girl, capturing some of the mannerisms (that hair flip, for example), and really just pulling on past performances in Bernie and Tropic Thunder.

Anyways, they proceed through the Jumanji jungle as they would in a video game.  The obstacles come out of nowhere, one after another, and this allows for plenty of meta-commentary on the nature of video games.  Rhys Darby plays their escort, that cut scene character who just shows up and explains the plot to you.  It gives the movie an opportunity to unleash all the exposition, but it makes sense because this is how video games work.  Also, Rhys Darby does an amazing job.

 

The villain is, well he’s played by Bobby Cannavale.  I forget his name, but he’s just any old villain.  He’s sinister, brooding, power-hungry, and he has that scene you almost always get where he kills one of his henchman for failing to capture the good guys.

Along the way the characters find a pilot (played by all of the Jonas Brothers rotating in and out like the Olsen twins in Full House) who has been stuck in the game for what he thinks is months but has actually been twenty years.  Jonas got sucked into the game in 1996, and in present day, our four main characters know his house as the creepy abandoned place on the corner.  Jonas’ parents were sad when he disappeared, as you are, and that’s that.  The characters realize he’s been stuck here, alive, that entire time, and isn’t that what happened to Robin Williams in the fir Jumanji?  Something like that.

So they make their way through the game, taking advantage of the three lives given to them, until they win.  The characters believe that if their third life expires, then they’re dead, but they don’t know for sure.  We never get to see Jonas or someone perish in order to tell us definitively that death in Jumanji is death in the real world.  So, since they believe the third life is final, then we believe it too.

Giving each of the characters three lives is an easy, effective way to raise the stakes.  Since the danger they face is mostly redundant, the only way to push them closer to the edge is to remove one of their lifelines.  Fighting off some kind of dangerous hippo is no different than the dangerous rhinos that chase them near the end.  It’s just that in one instance they have three lives, and in the other they have one, so boom, the stakes are raised.

They win, etc. and return to being themselves again, and the story is less interesting.  But overall, Jumanji is kind of great.  I think it’s like getting accidentally drunk.  If you were Jumanji drunk during a night out, when you expect to drink, then it might be kind of underwhelming.  But if you go to a picnic, have a couple margaritas and find yourself delightfully tipsy, then it’s kind of fun, right?  Well that’s Jumanji drunk.  It doesn’t compare to most of the movies out there, but when you go in with no expectations it can be pretty fun.

Jumanji has a bunch of meta commentary on this type of action genre as well as on video games, but it’s mostly a pretty sincere comedy.  It’s a silly story that doesn’t try to deny its own silliness.  When all the nerd wants is to kiss his crush, the movie treats this goal as seriously as any other.

Just about all the characters are likeable, and I found Kevin Hart’s shtick pretty enjoyable.  I’ve always liked Hart, I think, but there’s definitely some backlash and burnout associated with his routine, in which he always plays the same character with the same sensibilities.  The same goes for The Rock and to an extent Jack Black as well.  They’re doing exactly what they’re hired to do.

I don’t know, it’s a fine movie.  The people who might roll their eyes and wonder why Jumanji has a sequel are probably misremembering the reception to Jumanji when it came out.  That was a movie for kids, and so is this one.  Who knows, maybe the 11 year olds now will find themselves lamenting the release of Jumanji 3 in twenty years.

Up Next: Bonnie and Clyde (1967), Revolutionary Road (2008), The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946)

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