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Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (Review)

As I have said before, I don’t want this blog to only be a vehicle for writing. I want to share my thoughts on my own development as a writer and reader, and call out what resonates with me in the world. So in the build up to posting my own writing, please enjoy some reviews.

Like most of the films Robin Williams made in the 1990’s, the original Jumanji was a favourite of mine growing up, but not one I thought about often. But when I thought back on it around the time a long-delayed sequel was released, I realized how great of a film it was. How it touched on fears of losing your childhood, being without your parents, the mysterious and surprising dangers of supposedly everyday items like a board game. Of course, there is also a bit where the boy is forcibly transformed into a monkey. Animal transformations have never been my passion, but that, and the donkey scenes in Pinocchio (“Did that come outta me??”) stuck with me.

The new Jumanji is quite different from the original, but that’s to its benefit, by centering on a veritable “Breakfast Club” of teen archetypes and updating the game into a video game in a way that could easily have felt cheap and tacky, but instead manages to be smart. (Movies set “in” video games are always dicey since gaming trends change fast and the people who make movies aren’t usually gamers. But there have been enough good ones that we can admit that it’s a viable premise.) Where the original movie was quite interested in traumatizing children (the way all good children’s media did in the old days) and based around Robin Williams’ madcap performance that was half-Tarzan half-Big, this one is more “fun for all ages,” built for jokes (ironically, largely adult humour) and lighthearted action.

The players here are cowardly high school nerd Spencer, his former friend dumb jock “Fridge”, judgmental shrinking violet Martha, and social media-obsessed airhead Bethany, who uncover the Jumanji console during a shared detention. They all have issues – as well as assets – that they bring to the game, and must basically work through to win together. Conveniently, every one of them essentially becomes their opposite: the nerd becomes square-jawed action hero Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson (one of his abilities is “smoldering intensity.”) the jock becomes comic relief Kevin Hart (famous for being much, much smaller than the Rock is.) The self-conscious weird girl becomes model-sexy action girl Karen Gillan, and the would-be Insta-star becomes… Jack Black.

The Bethany-to-Jack transformation is the film’s lone gender-swap, but they do play it for all its worth with a healthy assortment of weewee and hard-on jokes. I would say just the requisite amount. And watching Black vamp his way through teaching Gillan how to be flirty and sexy is a strong comedic moment.

But we are not here only to discuss a movie where a character of one biological sex becomes the other, because the types are so specifically different the effect is the same for all of them. Seeing Karen Gillan as self-conscious Martha, she might as well have changed gender for how different the two are. The same goes for Spencer: The Rock especially gives a dynamic comedic performance as our nerdy hero, and you can really believe it’s his first day walking around looking like The Rock. Through playing avatars that do not reflect what the characters see in themselves, they all learn a Valuable Lesson about what they really are inside, which is where the heart of the movie lies, and where most transformation media does well to center itself; and just obvious enough.

With the action taking place inside a video game, there is a risk of the stakes not feeling real. In any movie, you know the heroes aren’t going to die-die, but somehow being inside a video game kind of heightens your awareness of that, although the film gets a lot out of the three-life limit. I think I would have enjoyed a version where the game takes over the town again, with the principal and townspeople recast as Jumanji NPC’s as our heroes interact in their new guises, but it’s not fair of me to rewrite the film.

Similarly, it’s tempting not to read this as a “transformation” movie since it’s about avatars in a simulated reality, but the movie goes to great lengths to establish that their in-game personas are as real to them as their actual bodies, anatomically correct and all. The “avatar inside a game” angle would have made a fine premise on its own, but being part of the Jumanji legacy really helps it come to fruition, even as this film strikes a very different tone from the original.

As with everything, it comes down to execution, and this movie nails it with a brisk script, comedy that lands, and impressive action. It is a very fun 90 minutes with a really likable cast and hits themes of transformation and identity that I love. I can’t wait to watch the sequel.

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