Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, 2017.
Directed by Jake Kasdan
Starring Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Jack Black, Karen Gillan, Bobby Cannavale, Nick Jonas, Rhys Darby, Alex Wolff, Madison Iseman, Morgan Turner, and Ser’Darius Blain
Four teenagers discover an old video game console and are literally drawn into the game’s jungle setting becoming the adult avatars they chose.
Immediately noticeable in the background of high school teenager Spencer’s bedroom are posters of various AAA Sony PlayStation 4 exclusives (Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End and The Last Guardian to name a few) signaling that director Jake Kasdan (Sex Tape, Orange County, also serving as a writer on this film among a crowded bunch that get the job done successfully) and the entire filmmaking team understand video game culture. Now, admittedly it is definitely Sony shilling some of their most revered titles (Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is distributed by them after all), but in the same scene, Spencer is playing a modern-day fighting game. I was unable to make out which one as I was in disbelief that he was speaking actual terminology of the genre. It’s not even one minute into Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle before it can be declared as more video game savvy than most actual adaptations of games.
It doesn’t stop there, as once our four young disobedient classmates find themselves in detention all in their own ways, Jumanji is unearthed in a dirty storage room that they are tasked with cleaning as punishment, with the kids subsequently getting sucked into the game after selecting their characters (which is now a video game resembling an SNES console), the embracing of familiar gaming tropes and knowledge of their mechanics continue to be on full display. Soon after appearing in the mystical titular jungle, a guide comes by to drive the four heroes (now being played by Dwayne Johnson, Jack Black, Kevin Hart, and Karen Gillan, but more on them in just a bit) around temporarily, spouting off mission objectives and repeating the same lines just as in actual games. The driver doesn’t even acknowledge the conversations going on between the children stuck in the bodies of the avatars, while Spencer instantly recognizes that the jeep driver is an NPC (non-playable character) and relays that information to the rest of the group.
Rather amusingly, the movie jumps into exposition centered on Van Pelt (returning villain from the original movie now played by Bobby Cannavale) which, again, Spencer is able to point out as a cutscene (non-playable moments involving playable and non-playable characters alike meant to steer the narrative along its predetermined course by the developers). His avatar is then given something to read, obviously meant to parallel random documents found across all different genres of games. This is all within, maybe, the first 15 minutes, so just imagine how much the rest of the film contains a genuine affection for gaming. The characters also discover that they have a variety of abilities and weaknesses (commonly referred to as classes in games), but what really works is the wise idea to place each teenager in a body that is their total opposite. Nerdy and socially awkward students become physically capable and beyond attractive, while the self-absorbed Bethany is placed inside the body of Jack Black. Football player Fridge humorously has all of his power revoked, as he is given the small and short body of Kevin Hart who excels in zoology and carrying around The Rock’s weapons in a backpack with unlimited space. His setbacks are plentiful, with one of them being completely random making for a truly funny moment.
Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle takes advantage of these body swaps to inject the experience with themes of finding courage, embracing who you are on the inside, and unfairly judging others. Most importantly, the fact that the characters have to work together (each of them only has three lives before dying permanently, and no cheat codes exist), is a great point of discussion for actual cooperative problem-solving skills games can teach some children. They heighten each other’s strengths simultaneously protecting each other from their weaknesses. I realize games consist of people sitting around the house communicating over an Internet connection, but it’s important to note that there is social interaction happening, and this movie highlights the positives of that teamwork. There are skills learned that can be carried over into the real world.
Additionally, the movie is relentlessly fun. Karen Gillan is by far the show-stealer as the film makes it a point to criticize and support her impractically programmed adventuring attire, while giving her multiple dance karate battles set to cheesy 90s music earning her the name Ruby Roundhouse a.k.a. Man Killer. Dwayne Johnson has an elaborate melee fight through a bazaar that is so in tune with actual video games it is impossible not to start playing air controller with synchronized button presses to him emphatically announcing his every action. Furthermore, since every player has a purpose, even Kevin Hart gets things to do for once besides serving as the hyperactive comedic relief. The same goes for Jack Black. It also allows for the actors to take part in some self-deprecating humor (there is a nerdy, never been kissed teenager stuck inside Dwayne Johnson’s statuesque features, and it makes for great comedy). Occasionally, the humor goes for some juvenile gender swap laughs, but it’s forgivable considering Jack Black goes for broke acting like a spoiled teenage girl.
Although the narrative is rich with thematic content to pull from, it’s undeniable that the structure of it all is fairly formulaic in terms of cinema and gaming. If a character is whittled down to their last life, the stakes aren’t palpable. It’s also a bit disappointing that the film doesn’t find a way to work in a boss battle of sorts. Again, this isn’t a deal breaker when it’s factored in the comical performances (not only are the individual stars terrific, but they also all have outstanding chemistry) and video game knowledge. It should also be mentioned that the movie never goes too far into video game structure or terminology to the point where casual moviegoers won’t understand; everything is explained and easily followed.
Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle exists somewhere between film and game, endlessly entertaining audiences on both ends of the spectrum. Its success comes from the result of committing to an idea with research and knowledge rather than imbuing it with nonstop lowbrow humor as some may have expected. Fear not, the original Robin Williams classic is not tarnished, it may honestly be surpassed depending on your preference, board games or video games.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, friend me on Facebook, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, check out my personal non-Flickering Myth affiliated Patreon, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com