By: Kevin Jordan
A trophy for trying.
I’m not sure there was any movie in 2017 for which I had lower expectations than Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle. Well, maybe Justice League. And Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. And Transformers: The Last Knight. And Kong: Skull Island. Ok, so there were many movies to be seriously pessimistic about this year and Jumanji was one of them. I also assumed that Welcome to the Jungle was a remake of the 1995 original and I loved the original. So, yeah – expectations, meet toilet water.
(Last SPOILER ALERT of the year.)
Five minutes into Welcome to the Jungle, I thought my expectations were going to be fulfilled. The film literally picks up where the 1995 film left off – the game is half-buried in the sand on a beach somewhere and someone stumbles across it and picks it up. This person gives the game to seventeen-year old Alex, who opens it, dismisses it with “who plays board games anymore,” sets it on a nearby shelf in his room, and goes back to playing an Atari-like console video game (the console being located on the other side of the room). During the night, a green glow lights up his room and, the next morning, Alex finds the console and controllers stacked on top of the Jumanji box. Thinking this is only mildly odd, he opens the Jumanji box and finds there is now a game cartridge for his console. Without batting an eye at this bizarre occurrence, Alex stuffs the cartridge into the console and is sucked into the game. Seriously?! That is how the board game becomes a video game? You didn’t even try. Why have the kid open the box at all? Or why not have him put it under the console himself? It took me less time to come up with several ridiculously simple ways to fix this scene than it did to write this paragraph.
Things really didn’t get better over the next ten minutes as we jumped to 2017 and met the other four kids (all five kids are teenagers), but at least we got something rational. For various reasons, nerdy-and-weak-Spencer (Alex Wolff), large-football-player-and-homework-cheat Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain), hot-and-self-absorbed Bethany (Madison Iseman), and awkward-and-anti-social Martha (Morgan Turner) end up in detention together. They are made to clean out an old storage area where they come across the old console, which inexplicably ended up in a high school. Just…uuuuggghhghh. They decide to play and are immediately sucked into the world of Jumanji where they are transformed into the characters they chose, which just happen to be the exact opposite of their real selves. Spencer becomes Dwayne Johnson (hot and huge), Fridge becomes Kevin Hart (short and annoying), Bethany becomes Jack Black (Jack Black), and Martha becomes Karen Gillan (sizzling hot ninja). Get it? Uuuuuggggghhhgh.
Then, something weird happened. The film became enjoyable. One of the things I love about the original is how nothing in the game is skipped over, including each turn. The rules are followed until the end and everything happens for a reason. Welcome to the Jungle pulls off the exact same feat, albeit with far less subtlety and cleverness, by showing us the entire game played out on screen. Sure, there are apparently only three or four levels in this game and the threats they face are far fewer and include Mad Max motorcycle extras (don’t ask), but they never warp forward or cheat their way through the game. Each player has three lines on their arm, denoting their number of lives within the game. And we get to see how every one of them is lost. Just like in the original, our new players must finish the game if they want to escape, though this time they have to actually accomplish something besides not dying (they have to put a MacGuffin in another MacGuffin). The film even takes the time to define the strengths and weaknesses of each player and utilizes all those things through the course of the game. I am stunned that the same writers (all six of them) that wrote such an atrocious opening scene also pulled the rest of this script out of their PlayStations.
I was also expecting really flat characters, based on such obvious jokes as their avatars being shoved down our throats, but I was wrong there too. With the exception of Kevin Hart Kevin-Harting it up, Johnson, Black, and Gillan acted their butts off to do their best impressions of their younger counterparts doing impressions of themselves. Even more impressive is they kept it up for the entire film (kudos to director Jake Kasdan on this as well), Jack Black really selling being a ditzy girl trapped in a hobo’s body. Perhaps the best trick of the entire film was Black managing to make a couple dick jokes not come off like, well, dick jokes. When Bethany has to pee, she asks the guys to explain to her how to use a penis and the result is genius. Even an obvious boner gag came off as poignant.
As much as I ended up enjoying the movie, there were some glaring misses. Nick Jonas (playing adult Alex) has a looooong way to go as an actor, but he wasn’t terrible. The villain (Bobby Cannavale) was almost non-existent, as well as being exactly what you would expect in a crappy video game. The tone of the film ditched anything even remotely frightening, which is one of the things that made the original so good. They remembered to include a cut-scene at the beginning of their adventure in the game (which was brilliant), then forgot to do any more cut scenes. Fridge had the backpack of weapons as a trait, but they rarely ever pulled anything out of the pack, which was a huge missed nod at what video game characters are able to carry in games. And, as good a job as they did to close out the characters’ arcs and individual growth, they completely forgot to do the same with Fridge (who never learns his lesson about abusing his friendship with Spencer by having Spencer do all his homework for him). And, again, Kevin Hart playing himself. Again.
When we walked out of the theater to give our opinions, mine was “that was alright” (voice inflection rising through the sentence). The agency rep asked “just alright?” to which I replied “yes, but said in the same tone as – ‘I thought it was going to be garbage’ (voice inflection rising through the sentence).” And that is all I wanted from this movie. A mindless two hours of silly entertainment that didn’t insult my intelligence. That’s worth a trophy accomplishment in my book.
Rating: Don’t ask for any money back (I’m as surprised as you).