Cast: Dwayne Johnson, Jack Black, Kevin Hart, Karen Gillan, Nick Jonas, Bobby Cannavale
Director: Jake Kasdan
Writers: Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers, Scott Rosenberg, Jeff Pinkner
It’s been years since I’ve watched the original 1995 Jumanji with Robin Williams, but I remember it well enough. It was a fun movie with an original concept and in the years since I never felt like it warranted a sequel. What’s interesting about this new movie though is that it isn’t clear whether it is a sequel, a remake, a reboot, or whatever else Hollywood is making these days. You could watch this film and never know that there was another movie released two decades prior. I’m not even sure if the film was originally conceived as a Jumanji sequel; I would have no trouble imagining a scenario where one of the screenwriters envisioned a movie about teenagers getting sucked into a video game, upon which someone at the studio, realising they owned the rights to Jumanji, attached the name to the property so that they might profit from Hollywood’s obsession with recognised brands. Maybe that isn’t the case at all, but what impressed about this Jumanji sequel/remake/reboot was how well it stood on its own two feet.
The movie starts off in a high school where nerdy gamer Spencer Gilpin (Alex Wolff), football jock Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain), introverted teen Martha Kaply (Morgan Turner), and Queen Bee Bethany Walker (Madison Iseman), all end up in detention together. In the middle of the mess they must sort out they find a dusty 90s video game console with a cartridge for a Jumanji game attached. They decide to have a quick go, pick their characters, and are then suddenly sucked into the game. They find themselves in a virtual jungle where they have taken the forms of their avatars. Spencer is now the tough and muscular Dr. Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson), Fridge is the short and feeble Franklin ‘Mouse’ Finbar (Kevin Hart), Martha is the athletic and beautiful Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan) and Bethany is the male, overweight, middle-aged Shelly Oberon (Jack Black). Realising they have been transported into the video game and that the most likely way out is to complete all the levels, they set out to obtain a stolen jewel called the Jaguar’s Eye and return it to its rightful place before the evil Russel Van Pelt (Bobby Cannavale) can get his hands on it.
The body-switching trope of having these Hollywood stars play these teenagers is one that could have gotten old rather quickly if not for the commitment each star gives their role and the movie’s understanding of their character’s anxieties and insecurities. As far as teenage characters go, these ones are not as fleshed out as those in The Breakfast Club (or Power Rangers to give a more recent example) but they suffice for what is after all meant to be a fun action/adventure blockbuster. Dwayne Johnson playing a scrawny, nerdy guy who cannot believe that he now has The Rock’s body works very well, as does casting a great physical comedy actor like Jack Black as a vain, smartphone-addicted teenage girl. Kevin Hart does what he does and gets some laughs and Karen Gillan has some fun as a socially awkward girl who doesn’t feel at all comfortable in a slim body with skimpy clothing, but I do wish the movie had done more to challenge the stereotypes that she is mostly perpetuating. Still, these actors all play their roles so earnestly that it never feels like just a gimmick. There were definitely a few moments there when I actually believed that Jack Black was a teenage girl.
The action/adventure aspect is, I would say, serviceable. It does what it’s meant to do well enough. The story follows a simple video-game structure where the characters have to get through certain levels to get to their objective and along the way they’re able to learn the mechanics of the game such as the strengths and weaknesses of their respective avatars and how many lives they each have. Along the way they overcome obstacles and battle faceless henchmen and a generic villain (whether this is a meta comment on video games or just a typical Hollywood trope, I cannot tell), and in between they have some individual character moments, both comic and (sort of) dramatic. The action scenes are shot well enough that you never lose sight of where everyone is or what is happening, but at the same time you never really feel like the characters are ever in that much danger. It’s a given that these characters will all make it home in the end, so any sense of drama or suspense has to stem from their individual arcs and I didn’t find enough there for me to really invest myself in their survival. Unlike Power Rangers which made a huge effort to give its characters complex personalities and tough, relatable problems, the arcs for these characters feel pretty thin and easily solved in comparison. It isn’t bad, merely serviceable.
The movie is at its best when it’s focusing on the stars and letting them have some fun. Standout moments include Black strutting around and flaunting his chubby physique as he instructs Gillan in the art of sexiness and seduction and also Johnson slipping into his expression of smouldering intensity anytime someone says “smouldering intensity”. This movie didn’t have to be great in order to cash in on the Jumanji name, but it’s clear that a lot of thought went into this film to make it more creative and surprising than it needed to be. That the movie never once resorted to cheap, empty intertextuality, by which I mean relying on the recognisable brand of the Robin Williams film as a substitute for thrills and drama, is to be applauded. This sequel/remake/reboot did its own thing and it worked out fine. The actors are all clearly giving their best and having a ball playing these characters and it is their charm and sincerity that kept me through to the end even when the concept and action started to wear thin.