The game is on.
If you were a teenage girl, and you suddenly woke up in a middle-aged man's body, chances are you'd be amazed at any number of discoveries. Chief among them: having a penis.
Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle sees four hapless teens slurped into the video game world of Jumanji, where they find themselves in the "avatar" bodies of Dr. Smolder Bravestone (The Rock), Moose Finbar (Kevin Hart), Professor Shelly Oberon (Jack Black), and Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan). One of those body swaps--Madison Iseman's character Bethany into Jack Black's Shelly Oberon--is a gender flip, and Jumanji never shies away from that most obvious--but effective--of jokes.
Yes, the new Jumanji movie is full to the brim with dick jokes. Besides in his perpetual role as JB in the comedy-rock band Tenacious D, Jack Black has perhaps never been funnier than while playing a teenage girl stuck in Jack Black's body. Welcome to the Jungle isn't the kid's movie you may recall the original Jumanji as; this is a movie for teenagers and adults who grew up with the original.
And yet, it isn't. Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is that rare sequel/reboot/remake that doesn't sink into a quagmire of its own nostalgic quicksand. References to the original are few and far between, besides a single obvious nod to Robin Williams' character, Alan Parrish. The board game so many '90s kids wished was real appears briefly in a cold open at the movie's start, before transforming itself into a video game to keep up with the times.
This inadvertently expands on the Jumanji mythology, such as it is, significantly: The game apparently has the ability to change its form and rules to better serve its ultimate goal. Whether that goal is to trap helpless children and consume their souls, or simply to teach them a wholesome lesson about perseverance, friendship, and acceptance, is immaterial. Either way, it hacks a path for more iterations in the future, should this one prove successful.
The new Jumanji starts to drag in its first 20 minutes or so, as it establishes the real life versions of the teenaged characters and their relationships with one another. They're all clichés, through and through; Bethany (Iseman) is the selfie-obsessed airhead, Spencer (Alex Wolff) is the nerd who helps the jock, Anthony "Fridge" Johnson (Ser'Darius Blain), cheat on his homework, and Martha (Morgan Turner) is the nerdy-but-kind-of-attractive-but-doesn't-know-it-yet girl. It's a necessarily long intro, given that it's the only time we spend with these characters in their actual bodies for the whole movie. But these cheesier scenes would have been more at home in a movie that actually was for kids, and they prove an odd contrast to the dick jokes and more adult humor throughout the rest of the movie.
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Things pick up when the main stars take the stage. Johnson, Hart, Gillan, and Black all do a phenomenal job embodying the teenagers inside them while playing up the more ridiculous aspects of the whole situation. Spencer--the nerd--becomes the irresistible Dr. Smolder Bravestone, and watching The Rock discover his own massive arm muscles for the first time is hilarious. Gillan does a fantastic job playing a "nerdy" girl in a "hot" body, alternating between a confident badass who "dance fights" her enemies and an awkward girl who can't talk to boys, and showing many shades in between.
It's from the veins of these incongruous personality-to-body match-ups that Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle mines most of its comedy, and its heart. One of the best scenes comes when Jack Black (really, Bethany) has to teach Karen Gillan (Martha, the awkward girl) how to flirt with boys so she can distract a pair of guards. Somehow, Black's performance as the soul of a teenage girl never devolves into caricature, while still being intensely funny. All four main actors remain grounded in how these characters would really act, with the occasional exception of Hart, who becomes more like himself and less like "Fridge" as the movie progresses.
The other big aspect here is the world of Jumanji itself, now a video game rather than a board game. It's equal parts The Matrix, Ender's Game, Ready Player One, and Westworld. The avatars these characters inhabit have specific strengths and weaknesses, which they discover through a video game menu that gets beamed into the sky like a hologram. Ruby has to watch out for venom, for example, while Kevin Hart's character is weak to "cake." These concepts all pay off at various points as the characters learn the rules of the game, fight and manipulate enemies, and solve puzzles. Jumanji seems like it would actually be a cool game, were it real.
Bobby Cannavale, Flight of the Conchords band manager Rhys Darby, and Nick Jonas round out a cast of other characters in the game. Spencer, being--again--the nerd, dutifully explains concepts like "non-player characters" and "cutscenes" as they encounter various game-like elements. The world's rules--like the characters needing to say the right phrases to get NPCs to move the quest forward--are established early on, and they help keep the group's goals and parameters clear. Jumanji doesn't spiral out too far on any one concept, like what happens when the characters in the game "die," which lets it stays tight and relatively focused.
Whether fans wanted it or not, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is a reboot that doesn't get bogged down in its own nostalgia. With an odd combination of cheesy clichés and raunchy humor, it doesn't so much walk the line between a kid and teen/adult movie as it does obliterate it entirely. But the chemistry among the main cast and the dense thicket of video game mythology and body-swap-dick-jokes they manage to cut through make the new Jumanji a surprising success.
There's a lot of heart at the story's core, too, although Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle ultimately doesn't want you to take it too seriously--it's just a game, after all.
|The Good||The Bad|
|Jumanji works great as a video game||Cheesy scenes and adult humor are an odd contrast|
|Main actors embody their teenage selves well||Slow start focused on clichéd teen characters|
|Humor derived from game rules and body swaps|
|Not bogged down in nostalgia|
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