Every so often, Hollywood releases a film where regular fans of a movie, TV show or video game are magically transported into the world of said media and have to use their knowledge of this universe in order to make it back home. (We’ve looked at some of those films here.) The modest popularity of this premise makes sense, since it allows filmmakers to spoof and skewer clichés while also celebrating them.
Compared to movies and TV shows, this premise hasn’t been milked as much as it relates to gamers. Even though it was technically a computer program and not a game, the original Tron and its underwhelming sequel should count, since the characters end up playing the equivalent of ’80s arcade games. If you count video game characters being able to move to other video games, then I guess we can include Wreck-it Ralph in that list, as well. Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle takes the “board game comes to life” premise of the original 1995 Robin Williams family fantasy/action vehicle and shifts it to a video game setting, as a brand new set of characters get put through the paces.
Unfortunately, the four credited screenwriters and director Jake Kasdan don’t appear too concerned about riffing on the real mechanics and clichés of video games, beyond some generic rules that even your cranky grandpa complaining about those “Pac-guy and Titris” thingamajigs could recite off-hand. This is a shame, since Kasdan is responsible for perhaps the last great spoof movie, Walk Hard, which showed how skilled he can be at cleverly skewering genre tropes. This apparent disinterest in the ins and outs of modern gaming culture results in a generic and episodic family-centric action/adventure/comedy with the backdrop of a jungle stunt show you can find in any movie studio-based theme park.
The new Jumanji begins at the end of the first film, as an avid console gamer finds the infernal board game in 1996, but decides not to play it, so it magically transforms itself into what looks like a Nintendo 64 cartridge. Seemingly unfazed by definitive proof that magic exists, the gamer plays the cartridge, inevitably getting sucked into the game and disappearing. The story then jumps forward twenty years, though it retains its tired ’90s high school archetypes. We have the quintessential ’90s nerd in Spencer (Alex Wolff), a cowardly germaphobe who’s peer pressured into doing the homework of gruff star football player Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain), another import from the Stock High School Movie Character Factory.
After getting caught cheating, Spencer and Fridge end up in detention with shallow popular girl Bethany (Madison Iseman), who comes across as a bunch of middle-aged men’s Reefer Madness-level idea of social media-obsessed youth, and Martha (Morgan Turner), your token attractive girl who’d be super popular in real life but is supposed to be an awkward nerd simply because she wears glasses and looks frumpy. When this convenient Breakfast Club knock-off troupe find the Jumanji game, they decide to give it a shot to fight their boredom, and wouldn’t you know, get sucked into the treacherous jungle world of the game, where they cannot go home until they finish every level and insert a shiny Mcguffin into an ancient temple thingy.
One of the most original touches in this concept is that the kids are transformed into their in-game avatars. Spencer is now the smoldering action hero (Dwayne Johnson). Johnson tries to integrate Spencer’s impish whims into his performance, but the script’s insistence of randomly turning on the avatar’s inherently programmed badassery makes it hard for the audience to gauge whatever organic character arc Spencer is supposed to be going through. Fridge is now an inventory dump comedy sidekick played by Kevin Hart, who essentially does his usual manic and abrasive schtick without exhibiting any of the characteristics we observed about Fridge during the first act. Karen Gillan does a decent job transferring Martha’s quirks into an ass-kicking Lara Croft type, but the MVP in the avatar department is Jack Black, who perfectly captures Bethany’s self-obsessed smugness as she’s stuck in the body of a middle-aged overweight cartographer.
The first Jumanji was far from a masterpiece, but at least the rules of the game were always clear, and the audience was always made aware of what section of the game the protagonists were on, and how much of the challenge was left for them to end their nightmare. The progression of the video game in Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, on the other hand, feels made up as it goes along, depending entirely on the shoddy screenplay’s necessity for a random action set-piece or an opportunity to awkwardly insert one of those canned “believe in yourself” speeches in lieu of tangible character development. If there’s one genre of entertainment that’s rigid about its rules, it’s cartridge-based arcade games. You know the exact abilities of your avatar, and how to use them in order to get through a set amount of levels. Here, apart from Johnson’s and maybe Gillan’s characters, the other avatars have zero abilities that would allow them to finish the game on their own.
If this was a co-op-only game where the abilities of each character are used to progress through levels, like The Last Vikings, that would be fine, but the movie’s rules informs us that a single player can attempt to finish the game. That’s either bad programming on the part of whatever magic has created Jumanji, or plain old sloppy writing. This all may seem like excessive nitpicking, but such video game logic is second nature to the supposed target audience of Welcome to the Jungle, and I suspect they will be far less forgiving of its lazy research. Also, depending on what the outcome of a scene of peril is supposed to be, the writers punch in the deus ex machina cheat code a few times too many, creating new rules and loopholes that weren’t foreshadowed or even referenced beforehand.
If we’re to discard this sequel/soft reboot’s missed opportunity to really dig into video game clichés, what we’re left with is a simple jungle-based Dwayne Johnson/Kevin Hart action/comedy. In that sense, it barely gets by as a mediocre genre attempt. Kasdan isn’t known for pulling off big budget action properties. He does his best here to create a kinetic pace, but the execution is always flat and dull. Next time, it might be a better idea to get back to the board game.
Director: Jake Kasdan
Writers: Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers, Scott Rosenberg, Jeff Pinkner
Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Jack Black, Karen Gillan, Rhys Darby, Bobby Cannavale, Nick Jonas, Alex Wolff, Ser’Darius Blain, Madison Iseman, Morgan Turner
Release Date: December 20, 2017
Oktay Ege Kozak is a screenwriter, script coach and film critic. He works as a reader for some of the leading screenplay coverage companies in Hollywood, and is also a film critic for The Playlist, DVD Talk and Beyazperde. He has a BA in Film Theory and an MFA in Screenwriting. He lives near Portland, Ore., with his wife, daughter, and two King Charles Spaniels.