Very few remakes, sequels or franchise reboots have signaled their desperation to connect quite as nakedly as “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” does. The movie opens in 1996 with a young man finding the now-discarded board game that wreaked such havoc on its players in the 1995 Robin Williams movie. The game winds up in the room of a teenager who ignores it, because who wants to play a board game? Overnight, the board game magically turns into a video game cartridge. And upon being inserted into the teen’s console, something strange happens.
The movie cuts to the present day and introduces four archetypal, irritating teen characters. There’s the smart and awkward Spencer; his former best friend “Fridge,” now a high school football star who makes Spencer do his homework; the selfie-obsessed popular girl, Bethany; and Martha, who’s a diluted variation of Allison, the smartest and angriest girl in the room in “The Breakfast Club.” And much like in that movie, these kids all get detention together.
At first, I presumed that the film’s increased attention on these teenagers was to make us that much more eager for the stars Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart and Jack Black to show up. There’s good news and bad news: We meet the marquee names shortly after detention. Only they are portraying those same irritating teen characters.
I’ll explain. The actual teens discover the discarded video game console in the detention room. They plug it in, the game boots up, and the kids choose their characters. Then they get sucked into the game, where they, among other things, meet the fellow who got sucked into the game 20 years before.
The movie derives its humor, such as it is, from the teens’ avatar choices. The nerd gets to be Dwayne Johnson. The big football player gets to be Kevin Hart (who, it is frequently noted, is not tall). The shy, awkward Martha gets to be an expert in dance-fighting (played by Karen Gillan). And the selfie-obsessed girl gets to be, surprise, Jack Black. The crew must navigate a mission that involves a large gem and a villain (Bobby Cannavale) who has insects crawling in and out of his mouth more regularly than is considered normal.
Their adventure often asks, “What would Steven Spielberg do?” It then answers poorly. (The movie’s director, Jake Kasdan, happens to be the son of Lawrence Kasdan, who worked as a screenwriter with Mr. Spielberg on “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”) The performances by Mr. Johnson, Mr. Hart and Mr. Black seem informed by the conviction that if they amuse themselves, they will also amuse others. They are not entirely wrong, but they are also not sufficiently right. Ms. Gillan, the lesser-known quantity of the group, has to work harder as the geeky teen comes to enjoy living, even if temporarily, in a bombshell adult package. She does commendable work both satirizing, and also fulfilling, a sexist conception.But never mind.
The whole shebang is little more than an excuse to have Johnson, Black, Gillan, and Hart run around acting like the “hilariously” “opposite” teens occupying the avatars they represent: The Rock is actually clumsy, scared skinny nerd Spencer, for instance, and isn’t that just a riot; a mincing Black is actually pretty, popular Bethany (sample dialogue: “I like can’t even with this place”). And then the movie thinks it’s piling on additional comedy when everyone defies those stereotypes. Jumanji is, contrary to its bright and goofy surface, a cynical undertaking in embracing the most diminishing clichés that it can apply to its characters and then asking us to cheer at halfhearted swats at them.
The most egregious is the attire that Gillan’s avatar is saddled with: she is half naked in a teeny miniskirt and a cleavage- and midriff-baring, all-but-sleeveless top, while the men are dressed much more reasonably to the jungle. She complains about it, as well she should. But the meta “excuse” for her clothing — it’s clearly a riff on 1996’s similarly half-naked jungle VG adventurer Lara Croft — only makes it all even worse. The movie wants to have its wokeness about the absurd sexualization of female videogame (and movie) characters, and it wants its absurdly sexualized female character, too. So uncool.
The idea of tossing characters into a game and forcing them to play is problematic in a few big ways. The stakes are really low, for one. They quickly learn that they can “die” in the game, but also that they instantly respawn. Sure, they also learn that, as you might expect, they get only three lives, but that’s a helluva lot more than you’d get in an adventure in the real world. (Comedic irony alert! Their school principal, when scolding them over the poor choices that led them to detention in the first place, sagely imparted a bit of adult advice: “You get one life.
” Little did he know!) Worse, we never have any idea what would happen if they used up all three of their lives and game-overed; they might just go back to the real world, for all we (and they) know. (That would have made for a shorter movie, at least.) The “message” of the movie is that the kids are supposedly learning stuff in the game that will be useful in the real world, like gaining confidence, but nothing they do in the game actually draws on their own personalities and talents: they’re just using the gameplay “skills” they’ve been assigned, like reading maps or “dance fighting” (*barf*).