Last week, Ben Wilson attended the Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle on my behalf. Here’s his review of the film.
Jumanji is a video game movie without any of the connotations you’d normally associate with the phrase. It’s a reinterpretation of the 1995 film for modern audiences, while also being kind of a remake, while also being a sequel. The old tabletop game gets replaced for what is essentially a VR experience – ‘cause when kids think of board games nowadays they think of ‘bored games’.
At least that’s what the studio was probably thinking. The original Jumanji came out in 1995 after all. Board games were still prevalent in the public mind and people’s playing habits. The film’s decision to upgrade from old school gaming to video gaming doesn’t entirely escape itself as a way to seem cool and relevant, but doesn’t entirely waste the opportunity either.
Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle reminds me of a project I made in media studies. Bestow video game tropes upon people in real-world scenarios – then have as much fun with the gimmicky appeal as you reasonably can. Jumanji has all of these; quests, character classes, abilities, and limited lives. It even gets away with backstory-dumping, because, ‘it’s not exposition – it’s a cutscene!’.
Most if not all the comedy comes from watching the more well-known actors behave contradictory to their well-known personas. Near-everyone does well to convince you they’re not who they look like. Dwayne Johnson is particularly skilled in shaking off his usual charisma for the insecurity of a timid teenager. I would say the same for Jack Black, but the avatar of a popular teenage girl doesn’t feel far from the kind of character he’d normally play anyway.
The video game tropes, while initially gimmicky, do carry the film’s thematic point – ‘cause Jumanji does actually have one. Each avatar is the better version of their real selves; Dwayne Johnson is the strong and courageous version of a scared adolescent; Jack Black is the smarter, more considerate, more humble, less self-absorbed version of a good-looking blonde; Karen Gillan is the confident version of a non-confident high school nerd; and Kevin Hart is the smaller, less bullish version of a college jock. In a movie where much of the draw is watching popular actors behave unlike themselves, it’s unfortunate that Kevin Hart can only act like Kevin Hart.
Jumanji doesn’t simply share the conventions of video games, but also uses player empowerment to supplement the usual themes of self-belief. Obviously this is just light exploration – nothing dives too deep here. It’s difficult juggling social commentary when you’re trying to have fun in the jungle, and you’re lead actor has made his career in pure entertainment value. Not every film can be The Lego Movie.
But conceiving itself like a video game has given Jumanji one of the best concepts to justify a ‘be all you can be’ story. This probably won’t be considered a smart movie, though it was smart to play into the underlying incentive of so many mainstream games.
This is one of those movies where most of the drawbacks can be narrowed down to how pulpy it is. This is a Dwayne Johnson movie. You know what you’re getting. If anything is unnecessary – that’ll be the big baddie. I’ve seen crew members with more screen-time than this. He’s merely a plot driver, and barely even that. His existence is, nor his defeat is even necessary for the characters to complete the game. He’s just someone they have to fight ‘cause someone had to be fought.
Jumanji is a fun movie hidden beneath ideas that usually don’t work. The only reason they work to any degree here is body-swap comedy and a clever take on an old theme. Jumanji is basically a movie about another medium entirely, joining an ever-growing list of films like Edge of Tomorrow and Read Player One which take inspiration from games instead of taking their stories.
So far, this way is working better.