Summary: A group of unlikely companions must find their way out of a video game. Cue the bongos!
Even though it stars Dwayne Johnson, I wrote Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle off as something I would wait for in a cheaper theater or streaming service. The trailer was funny, it looked entertaining, and the idea of getting sucked into a video game seemed adventurous enough- I just didn’t understand the use of the name Jumanji. I’m not one of those original Jumanji purests, it just didn’t seem necessary as the premise was already strong. However, my interest grew when Jumanji not only topped Star Wars: The Last Jedi for the number one spot at the box office in its release one week later, but managed to hold onto it.
And so I gave into the hype and went to see Jumanji, laughing a lot along the way. Upon initial walkout, I felt great but as the day went on and I thought a bit more about it, I don’t think I saw anything very fulfilling or memorable. The jovial feeling was most likely due to the unexpected leather recliners and the ticket price of a whopping $7. First showings of the day rule!
First and foremost, Jumanji is a kids movie. I’m not going to preach about how video game components and exposition are explained or talk about its editing. Plot holes run amok here, but I’m giving them a pass. It’s made for family fun, some inappropriate jokey jokes, obvious point outs about Kevin Hart’s height and Karen Gillan’s outfit, and Rock Smash. That’s fine and all- Jumanji more or less succeeds here- but there’s lacking in the “family” department. In regards to emotional pulls and profound moments, Jumanji falls short of being a really good kids movie- I don’t see it having the longevity of other movies kids-into-adults look back on with fondness. I’ll refrain from comparing it to the original too much so think of Goonies, specifically the scene when they are in the wishing well- the team is split and Mikey has to talk everyone into sticking to the mission. Or in Hook, another Robin Williams classic, and Peter has to find the power of his imagination. These are the pivotal moments where the characters internalize and accept who they want to be- who they need to be. Jumanji kind of gets there but then switches back into adventure mode before it can finish the moment.
This probably has to do with Jumanji’s lack of an overall theme, which is vague and extremely thin (“Decide what you want to do with your life!”). The movie presents ideas, attempts to explore them, but fails to complete them. This can be seen its half-attempted character development, specifically with Fridge and Martha, who experience the most physical change as their avatars. Fridge is the muscley football player is used to being the star and main attraction but is demoted to the much shorter sidekick of Spencer, the nerdy gamer who suddenly has the body and confidence of a Greek God- the two were friends until high school got in the way and Fridge became a star. By the end, Game-Fridge is happily playing the support role but then IRL-Fridge doesn’t have a moment to show his experience stuck. He says he is studying harder, but that doesn’t speak to his relationship with Spencer. As seen in the trailer, Gillan’s scenes as the avatar of a confrontational outcast are spent on her physical attributes and convincing her to be confident and that she is capable of being a vital asset to the team- for the most part, Game-Martha grows more confident and less self-conscious about her body but then IRL-Martha just goes back to being a lone wolf. I’m not sure what they were trying to convey with body image here- the jokes about her appearance don’t seem to have any other purpose other than “But you’re hot! Own it!” which I see as the equivalent of someone telling her to smile more. Also, Gillan is obviously attractive so… what does this do for the character of Martha? I would have loved a campfire scene where all the characters talk about how awkward they feel in a different body- and what Martha likes about her own body.
Instead, the campfire scene is a margarita scene (these are all high school students, mind you) where Jack Black (the avatar of 16-year-old pretty girl Bethany) bats his eyes at Alex (Nick Jonas) and more gameplay is explained. Alex is somewhat shoehorned in here as “Character from a Previous Decade who is also Stuck in Jumanji” and is a homage machine in a role similar to Alan Parrish while also name-dropping Alan Parrish in a throwaway line- his character isn’t really all that necessary except to fulfill a riddle, which is itself a homage to the original Jumanji. (IRL-Alex is also kind of a creep. Am I the only one who got that? Is it because they were both 16 at the time in Jumanji that it’s okay for him to check out Bethany?)
With all that aside, I did laugh a lot during this movie, but this has more to do with the chemistry of the cast than the actual jokes. Not including Jack Black discovering his new body parts and a hero’s kiss, the jokes are largely forgettable while being very funny in the moment. Johnson and Hart banter is always dependable. Jumanji also takes advantage of how impossibly impressive and all-around Johnson is, giving him no weaknesses and a special move of “smoldering intensity”- this is hilarious as it pops up in unexpected moments. And Johnson swatting Hart into a wall will always be funny to me. I’m not the biggest fan of Jack Black, but he had some solid moments. As The Rock would say, Gillan brought it with her action scenes and despite the thin development. She has wonderful comedic timing and gave a lot more to the character than required.
As someone who grew up nearly every system, I did enjoy all the gaming elements they threw in here especially the bits with NPCs and the strengths/weaknesses. (Shout out to the use of Twisted Metal in the beginning!) It was fun to see these in action, even if it was for mostly expositional points (“REMEMBER, that’s your WEAKNESS!”). I wish video game movies were as much fun as this “non-video game but wants to be a video game” movie. I will say that Jumanji has an adventurous tone that seems to be lacking in the genre. I’d say I’d like to see it in a future video game movie, but Rampage (also starring Johnson) doesn’t seem to be swaying that way. Ah, well.
Just give me a blanket next time and I’ll give your movie an A-.