December. Cinema’s recognized “Awards Season” where studios slate projects that vie for Oscar’s golden attention. Typically where an “entertainer” like Jumanji: Welcome To The Jungle would become buried – but what an injustice that’d be. I, as a responsible critic, won’t let you skip on one of the year’s wildest cinematic excursions. See Lady Bird with your mom, embrace the peachiness of Call Me By Your Name, but when you need a break from deeper affairs of the filmmaking heart, lighten moods with Jake Kasdan’s dynamite sequel-reboot. Danger is the name of this revamped 90s game, hilarity keeping pace with animalistic enthusiasm.
Our journey begins in modern-day detention, where four high school students from various cliques uncover a prehistoric gaming system while de-stapling old magazines (Alex Wolff, Morgan Turner, Madison Iseman and Ser’Darius Blain). Spencer (Wolff) plugs the console in and an exploration game titled Jumanji loads up. Characters are selected, but something unexpected happens after pressing “Start” – the kids disintegrate and remanifest inside Jumanji’s world, now represented by their avatars. Dr. Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson), Professor Shelly Oberon (Jack Black), Moose Finbar (Kevin Hart) and Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan) are their new identities, with freedom being granted from their digital prison only after beating the game’s final task. Will they escape the perilous cyber jungle together? Only if evil boss Jaguar (Bobby Cannavale) fails.
Right off the bat, take your nostalgia complaints and blast them into the stratosphere. There *may* or may not be an Alan Parrish nod hidden (in plain sight), but otherwise, the film’s four-man writing team evolves Chris Van Allsburg’s source literature with respected video game depth. Players don’t watch pieces traipse across a plotted board, they become these MMORPG stereotypes. Actions aren’t dictated by overturned cards, they’re discovered through Uncharted means. Don’t get me wrong – Jumanji remains a childhood favorite (except for those goddamn spiders!) – but Jumanji: Welcome To The Jungle is such a different, unique beast of an experience that lives by its own rules.
From the mouth of a gamer, those rules are rather impressive when it comes to the digitized rendering of “new” Jumanji (animals too, even counting no – or little – practicality [sad face]). Layer by layer, the script pokes fun at gaming culture whether it be clothing or structure. Gillan (as Turner) for example, immediately comments on her exposed midriff, booty shorts and leather chest holster even though she’s a “kick-ass” female adventurer. Hart (as Blain), meanwhile, is the “noob” who’s unfamiliar with “nerdier” pastimes – his wall-breaking comments notice how Rhys Darby’s “Non-Playable Character” keeps repeating the same programmed dialogue.
Players talk over “cutscenes,” each character’s life bar is displayed via tattoo, weaknesses and strengths are discovered – Smolder can smolder, Finbar can’t eat cake – and so on. It’s funny, because for a movie not based on a video game, depth of satire and knowhow dives much deeper than any actual video game movie. Maybe take notes, prospective video game adaptations?
Ideas pave the way, but Jumanji: Welcome To The Jungle wastes no time exploiting magnetic chemistry between the whole ragtag ensemble. Avatars are forced to act like their teenage counterparts, which is a goldmine worth excavating another three hours if possible.
Johnson, a muscly gorilla in his own right having to mimic Wolff’s anxious, unconfident ‘fraidy-cat-ness. Hart, projecting a Napoleon complex that comes from Blain’s football stud ego being crammed inside a short sidekick whose greatest skill is holding Smolder’s weapons. Gillan, a drop-dead gorgeous femme fatale stuck acting like she doesn’t understand her own worth (Turner the book-wormy loner girl). Jack “Steals The Show” Black playing the brainiac that Iseman’s social media queen picks because she sees the description “curvy.” This means Jack Black screams white girl problems whilst pouting like a hormone-raging plastic queen biotch. All tremendously out-of-body, but still enjoyable comfortable in their warped, arc-defining roles.
“But Matt, that sounds tremendously hokey and gimmicky.” You’re absolutely right. Jumanji: Welcome To The Jungle is a two-hour body swap stunt – that Kasdan continuously executes. First, in simple doses as Johnson talks himself out of crying, Gillan discovers her acrobatic martial arts skills and Hart running sluggishly despite having the soul of a future NFL star. Simple quests lead the players from level to level, be they fleeing from dystopian biker thugs or helicoptering away from a stampede of man-eating rhinos. No matter what the scenario – including when Nick Jonas’ margarita-slinging Jimmy Buffett type enters frame – we witness both young minds and adult bodies melding harmoniously to push a thorough massage of becoming the person you desire. Spencer doesn’t need to physically remain Smolder in order to stay the dashing hero – he just needs to believe the part back home.
Then there’s Mr. Black, who deserves a paragraph unto himself thanks to his whiny portrayal of self-centered prep school snobbery who instantly becomes the runaway star. A 48-year-old comic genius playing an 18-ish-year-old girl trapped in an overweight, middle-aged man’s body who discovers the wonders of male genitalia anew. His hands arched ever so daintily as he hops effeminately over muddy terrain, trading girl talk with Gillan never to skip a single young adult beat.
Bethany – through Black’s theatrical composure – experiencing the ease of male urination will be your favorite scene, second only to Bethany, as pop-lock-and-dazzling Black, teaching Martha (as Gillan plays dumb to her beauty) how to properly flirt. No sarcasm, give Jack Black a Best Supporting Actor nod. If only for his seductive gazes directed towards Jonas, whom he shares tremendous chemistry with on a heartfelt – I can’t believe I’m admitting this – emotionally charged level. Black was born to form Tenacious D, but goddammit if playing a cartographer vessel who now refers to himself as a “map doctor” could be a fill-in destiny.
Jack Black is *feeling* himself, and by Lord Olmec, what a transformative performance this genius has bestowed upon the unsuspecting masses.
Jumanji: Welcome To The Jungle is an energetic expedition into genre-loving wilds that reminds of Jurassic World and other thrilling creature romps (please, PLEASE @ me). It’s one that may follow the straightest, narrowest narrative path, but simulated dangers still allow for crack-whip camaraderie and enjoyable role-playing satire of the pixelated realm. For as many boner, wee-wee and dong jokes there are in this film, Jake Kasdan shockingly helms a deceptively smart comedy that should overstay its juvenile welcome – yet leaves us yearning for more. Another knee-buckling Johnson smolder or trademarked Hart explosion (the bantering I wish Central Intelligence favored). Another attempt for Gillan’s “anime sparkle” eyes or Black’s admittance that he just “can’t even” with “this place.” All so goofball, all so expected – but steal my emerald jewels if this isn’t one exciting, hilarious bookend on a rather serious 2017.
Jumanji: Welcome To The Jungle is both a fulfilling reinvention and adventurous video game quest that’s far funnier, and unexpectedly exciting, than you could hope for from an evolved reboot with explosive fantasy character.