Four high school kids in detention are drawn into a videogame and become the avatars in this humorous jungle-based adventure.
Upon seeing the trailer for this film, my initial reaction was “Oh, God, why?” The original Jumanji was a classic of my childhood (and a classic to many of those born in the late 80’s/ early 90’s), and though it’s been years since I’ve revisited the Robin Williams version, I still remember it warmly (though, upon brief investigation, I found that perhaps the film is best left remembered as is; through a nostalgic filter. Critics seem split by the film. Indeed, the 2017 version is actually receiving more positive response). I honestly probably wouldn’t have seen this film (certainly not in theatres) had it not been for a family trip to the movies Christmas day. However, I must say I was pleasantly surprised.
Let me say that this is not a good movie, but neither is it a bad movie. It is ever so slightly above average as far as I am concerned; the fact that this film exceeded my low expectations was a delightful surprise. I was never bored during the viewing, despite the fact that the film’s length encroaches on two hours; some of the jokes were rather clever, pandering specifically to gamers and, sometimes, older audience members. Some jokes did fall flat- Nick Jonas’s character, in particular, was a notable bore when compared with the other talent on screen- but for the most part the audience reacted positively, laughing consistently throughout the film.
The plot is essentially “Breakfast Club” meets “Ready Player One” meets “Aguirre, the Wrath of God”. Four mismatched kids are sent to detention, where they discover a videogame that sucks them into the Amazonian world of Jumanji. They must work together, braving the dangers of the jungle, to return an ostrich-egg-sized jewel with magical properties to the eye socket of a massive Jaguar idol before the villain, Van Pelt (Bobby Cannavale, “Ant-Man”), wraps his evil talons round it. The jewel allows the barer mind control powers over the animals of Jumanji; it also seems to have a ‘One Ring’-like draw over the previous possessors, as Van Pelt is bloody determined to get it back.
The characters are all familiar tropes: the loveable nerd (played by Alex Wolff of “Hereditary”), the football jock, the ditzy blonde, and the smart nerdy girl whom everyone knows is destined to end up with the loveable nerd. Even from the beginning we have it pounded into our heads that this is going to be a movie about overcoming differences and working together to achieve goals. As the characters cross the threshold into the new world, their bodies are transformed into the avatars they chose. A lot of the humor of the movie revolves around the fact that they are uncomfortable in their bodies- particularly Bethany (the ditzy blonde) who’s found herself stuck in Jack Black’s body. It’s nothing new, but it’s tried and true, and people still seem to love it.
Soon after landing in the digital world and regrouping with the others, the characters run into Nigel (Rhys Darby, “What We Do in the Shadows”). Nigel is an NPC (Non-Player Character), and as such is only programed with certain responses for certain questions. This, I found, was one of the strengths this movie displayed- it plays into the fact that the world is inside a video game. Much of the humor derives from the characters figuring out or accidentally breaking the rules of the world. The characters even audibly freak out when a “cut-scene” comes onscreen, before Spencer (Johnson's character) explains that many games have them to explain backstory. This type of fourth-wall breakage occurs throughout, adding a fun element to the film. As the avatars continue into the jungle, they discover they all have special powers and weaknesses, and only in working together can they complete the task at hand, which is, again, quite cliché.
It’s obvious that the cast had a great time shooting this movie. Kevin Hart (“This is the End”) and Dwayne Johnson (“Skyscraper”) worked together just a year prior in “Central Intelligence” (another flawed movie with some funny parts), and it’s obvious that they really enjoy working together. Jack Black stole the screen in many scenes, and that's something I never thought I’d say. His portrayal of the self-centered, hormone-ridden Bethany is quite humorous, though at times the character borders on sexist comments. Karen Gillian (“Avengers: Engame”) holds her ground as Martha, the only female protagonist (unless you count Jack Black’s body swap). To the film’s credit, it shies away from the damsel in distress trope. Martha is given just as many difficult tasks, and she does a bit of the fighting, but that doesn’t mean the film passes the Bechdel test. While the film allows Martha to be the master of her own fate, it doesn’t stop her male counterparts from making many, sometimes cringe-worthy, comments about her appearance. In one scene, the male protagonists encourage Martha to distract a few guards by flirting with them, saying that she is the only one with ‘the goods.’ And while the scene is played off for humor, it is slightly sexist. Even Martha herself, when first adjusting to her new avatar, makes a comment about the ridiculousness of her mid-drift baring outfit. It’s a small bone to pick, as the humor derived from the situation is quite tame when compared to many other comedies today, but I believe it’s still important to note.
Jumanji is fast paced, light-hearted, humorous, and, above all, just a ton of fun. It is not anything that will win awards; it didn’t break any new ground, it (probably) won’t be remembered as a classic in fifteen years, but if you’re looking for something fun, this movie might just put a smile on your face. Don’t go in expecting to be blown away, but with managed expectations, this film is utterly enjoyable.
The film was slightly (mildly) sexist at times, as I’d mentioned before. The only other issue I had was the language. This film was advertised as a family friendly film; many of the jokes were appropriate for all ages, but there were dozens of four letter words spattered throughout the feature. At the risk of sounding like my parents, I was sort of surprised a family film would have so much cussing. There was also a scene talking about Jack Black’s- ahem- engorged organ that seemed a little out of place.
Parents who are considering showing this to younger children might want to give it a viewing first to decide if they are all right with the content. But for teenagers and older, Jumanji is a fun, and for the most parts, innocent flick. If you’re looking for a blockbuster with a small scoop of brains and a large portion of heart then this could be the movie for you.
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