The Game Has Evolved
Set 22 years after the events in Jumanji (that’s right, it’s a direct sequel), we are introduced to four high school students: nerdy Spencer, football jock Fridge, brash brain Martha and it-girl Bethany. For different reasons they all find themselves in detention, forced to clean out a dank storeroom so it can be turned into a new computer room. Within the storeroom, they find a dated looking video game console and take a break to load it up. Having selected their respective characters they are sucked into the game itself. Within the game, Spencer is no longer a weedy nerd but buff, brave explorer Dr Bravestone [Johnson], Fridge is zoologist Mouse Finbar [Hart], Martha is femme fatale Ruby Roundhouse [Gillan] and Bethany has found herself in the body of portly cartographer Sheldon Oberon [Black]. They quickly learn that in order to escape the perils of the game they must complete certain objectives before they are caught by crazed rival explorer Van Pelt [Cannavale] and their lives run out.
As a starting point, the logic that the board game is a somewhat sentient malevolent entity that can alter itself to take on forms that reflect the times – i.e. video games – is rather brilliant. There’s also room for it to be doubly amusing as electronic games date so quickly and board games have had a massive resurgence but that unsurprisingly wasn’t addressed. But I maintain the initial premise is a very logical reworking. The key difference, however, is not that the game is now digital but the complete shift in tone. One of the reasons I enjoyed the original Jumanji was its darkness, that it was a gruelling experience which threw a lot of heavy responsibility at children. In a way, it felt like a parallel to teenagers signing up to serve in World War I thinking it would be both an adventure and great fun, only discover it was a living nightmare. Much like Alien and Aliens, this sequel is given an immense genre shift from mild fantasy horror to light action comedy. For some, this will be a welcome change and the jovial nature will feel fresh and entertaining, for others it will feel like a sterilised pandering affair that robs the feature of any potential for genuine threat. With this genre shift there has naturally also been an alteration in aesthetic. While we never saw the setting of the world of Jumanji in the original, the Victorian, colonial, Heart Of Darkness feel has been traded in for a Far Cry ambience – which, I will acknowledge, feels completely in line with the video game mindset but loses a bit of the charm along the way… and some of the animals apparently. Seriously, there is a distinct lack of animal attacks in a game that’s set in a jungle where everything it trying to kill you. Half way through the film it occurred to me that we had only seen two hippos and one snake; the main threat was Van Pelt’s gang of Mad Max-looking goons. But considering how ropey the CGI looked, it’s both a pro and a con. With the new main villains, lighter tone and bright, bubbly performances, Jumanji: Welcome To The Jungle is akin to the Ghostbusters remake. While it’s not a bad release it doesn’t hold enough weight to feel necessary because it completely alters the mood, heavily leaning toward the comedic. And that’s not to say that the film as a concept couldn’t work, I just think getting a comedy heavy director whose best release is Walk Hard might have been a mistake.
Aside from the mediocre predicaments and uninspired use of wildlife, the majority of this movie rides on the central performances. We have both the real life characters, who are essentially archetype bookends that far from define the characters themselves, and the in-game avatars, the recognisable actors we arguably came to see. I’m extremely torn with each and every one of them. I can admit that there are moments of extremely funny dynamism and genuinely likeable engaging acting but there is also wall-to-wall laziness perpetrated by each character. At the forefront we have the tried and tested double-act of Johnson and Hart. There’s absolutely nothing new here, all the jokes are the default ones that come with pairing these two but I’ve gotta confess, it works. It’s still adequate and they are still adequately playing these parts. Next we have Karen Gillan as Ruby Roundhouse. This is a bit of a tricky one. We’ve got an opinionated intellectual in the body of your standard video game woman: “Why am I wearing this outfit in a jungle? Tiny little shorts and a leather halter top? What is this!?”. This is often the cause for a lot of self-aware commentary that calls out video game character design, objectification and female empowerment. It doesn’t exactly always hit the mark but the message is a reasonable one (if a little generic) – you had the power to be a badass all along, inner beauty and strength are as powerful as outward beauty, etc. The only problem is that a lot of contemporary mainstream releases feel they have permission to proceed in a stereotypical manner as long as they say “it’s ok, we know this is inappropriate.” Then we have Jack Black. It’s not that Jack Black does a bad job, it’s that his character is flatly drawn and the vapid delivery feels genuinely fake coming from him. From the very get go, Black whining about his/her phone being missing is painful but as the film progresses, it becomes less painful. Not good, just less painful. And as I’m typing this I’ve just remembered there’s a whole pissing scene where Bethany, in the body of a man, has to deal with urinating via a penis. It’s a weird scene but in a body-swap feature that’s to be sort of expected. Littering your feature with frequent cock-callbacks, on the other hand, is pretty ridiculous.
**Plot point spoilers within**
One of the more pleasing aspects of this film is that they managed to hide a main character from the trailers. The film opens with a teenager discovering the original board game on a beach before it shifts into a game cartridge. This is actually a potential plothole as the kid seemed to playing on a PlayStation and a cartridge wouldn’t work on that and even if he had something that it would work on, when the kids discover it at school, the console is some unknown custom thing so the cartridge must have shifted again? Regardless of that, we eventually learn that the kid who played that game, Alex played surprisingly well by Nick Jonas has been trapped in Jumanji much like Alan Parrish was in the first film. As great as this plot point is, it creates so many problems. Other than the cartridge nonsense I’ve already mentioned, there’s a bit of a time issue here. When the group first meet up with Alex he explains he’s been stuck in the game for months but they explain he’s been missing for 20 years. That’s fine but it pisses on its own rules twice over when the kids get out of Jumanji. First up, the main group wind up back in the new computer room in their high school with seemingly no time having passed but by the film’s established logic it should be 121 days later. Then you have Alex, who returns to his own time period and the events of the film carry on. Which is a paradox. At least the original had the courtesy to wipe history to the point where the game began because the consequences and continuity fallout would have been huge. But obviously the film wanted to go for an upbeat “these kids have learned something” close and you can’t have that if all memory of said lessons are erased upon their return.
As stated, one of the reasons I loved the original was that it was dark and didn’t talk down to kids, playing on the fact that adults don’t believe or listen to children and introduced children to the concept of PTSD while simultaneously entertaining them with a silly dangerous adventure with cutting edge visual effects (of the time, they look awful now). What a lot of people forget is, this isn’t the first remake/sequel, in the late 90s a fairly decent animated series was produced which was also pretty impressive. This feature certainly has its own merits and in no way fails to entertain its target demographic but with its modernisation, it has lost a lot of what made the original interesting and that’s a shame.
22nd December 2017
The Scene To Look Out For:
Of all the things to highlight, this may feel a bizarre one but … Jumanji is a Christmas movie. It’s very odd, downplayed and you only notice when you see how the school office and a few houses are decorated but this film takes place at Christmas and that is such a weird move. I have absolutely no idea why, other than the fact it will have been first released around Christmas? It was genuinely confusing and distracting for me.
Casting Bobby Cannavale was a decent call but the idea of what his character is felt a touch unusual. Taking a bit of a Tomb Raider inspiration, the character is no longer just a crazed hunter (and clever, if obvious, extension of blatant father issues) but a driven foil with supernatural enhancement. Again, I understand the reasoning for this shift but the execution is a weird one and much like Jack Black’s performance, Cannavale does a reasonable job, it’s just very blandly written.
“Cake makes me explode”
In A Few Words:
“A fairly rational/mundane addition to the Jumanji lore that leans heavily on comedic elements which acts as both help and hindrance”