I may be speaking too much in haste, but I feel reasonably confident in saying that Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is the most pure fun I’ve had at a movie in 2017. I laughed to the point that I felt compelled to apologize to my seatmates once the credits rolled, I involuntarily gasped out loud at a plot twist I probably should have seen coming, and I wasn’t bored for even a minute of the movie’s two-hour runtime. In short: Jumanji is a blast. No, it isn’t in contention with, say, The Shape of Water or The Post, but does it have to be?
If you’re looking for a watermark by which to judge my reaction, the new Jumanji is comparable to 2015’s Goosebumps (incidentally also starring Jack Black), which hit me in much the same way as a reboot I was only cautiously looking forward to that ended up blowing my expectations out of the water. Jumanji is outrageous fun, and also a good deal smarter than its trailers suggest. And at the very least, it’s a much more intelligent take on the nature of finding oneself in a different body and with a identity than, say, the recent Ghost in the Shell. (To be clear, there are still some outdated racial politics in the film, but the creative team seems well aware of it.)
Directed by Jake Kasdan (Orange County, Walk Hard), Welcome to the Jungle is a nominal sequel to the 1995 Jumanji. The board game that terrorized Judy and Peter Shepherd has, in keeping with the changing times, turned itself into a video game, and trapped a whole new set of kids. Geek Spencer (Alex Wolff), jock Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain), cheerleader Bethany (Madison Iseman), and bookworm Martha (Morgan Turner) are in detention when they discover the game, and, upon playing it, are sucked into the world of Jumanji. They appear in the game as the characters they chose to play as, all of which are their polar opposites. Spencer has turned into man’s man Xander Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson) with Fridge as his diminutive sidekick (Kevin Hart), and Bethany and Martha have become the resident nerdy professor (Black) and badass bombshell (Karen Gillan), respectively.
Despite a cast that is essentially double in size given the body-swap that’s going on, there’s not a single bad performance in the bunch. This is particularly impressive as the primary “game” cast are all playing against their usual type. Johnson and Hart are playing a better (and more complex) version of their duo in Central Intelligence, with the goofball/straight man roles ever-shifting as their inherent personalities do battle with the characters they are in the game. Gillan, similarly, is tasked with balancing Morgan’s wallflower tendencies with the more Lara Croft qualities of her avatar. But it’s Black who steals the show, going through a bit of mild horror before gunning straight into fascination. Bethany is the only character who has changed sex in being ported into the game, and some of the movie’s best jokes are tied to that shift — and also litigate the difference between penis jokes and dick jokes.
These bodily changes are dealt with in tandem with working through the sorts of anxieties that come along with being in high school. Particular kudos are due to the screenwriters here in that the two female characters aren’t pitted against each other as they would be in most other teen dramas. The problems they have with each other are ironed out in the first act in just a minute of conversation, and not even a hint of clique-induced tension comes up through the rest of the film from there. The back and forth between Black and Gillan is, incredibly, even funnier than the rapport between Johnson and Hart, which is saying something since the two men seem to have their routine down to an art.
Where body-swap jokes make up half of the movie’s humor quotient, video game jabs make up the other. These should be easy to follow even for those who’ve never touched a console, as Spencer is tasked with offering up brief explanations of less intuitive mechanics for his less geeky friends. The NPCs (non-player characters) and cut scenes (basically video game exposition) are a particularly nice touch, and despite the explicit structure of the Jumanji game as a series of levels to be beaten, Jumanji still has much more of a flow than some of its peers at the multiplex. Granted, the video game elements taper off towards the end of the movie as the plot demands a slightly more dramatic take on things than can’t necessarily be facilitated by game gimmicks, but they’re still good fun while they last, and Jumanji is leaps and bounds ahead of its peers (Assassin’s Creed, Warcraft) in so explicitly being a video game movie.
Jumanji is also one of those rare films that can’t quite be said to be “of the moment.” It’s progressive insomuch as it doesn’t really make any jokes that come at the expense of one demographic or another (or at least, such jokes are called out as such), but it’s not art that’s made in reaction to the immediate political climate, nor really one that could be read as such regardless of intention. I’m not pointing this out as something to be lauded or decried; rather, for better or worse, it’s the purest, silliest form of escapist art. It leans too hard into its silliness sometimes, sure, but tolerating that is a small price to pay for such fun.
/Film Rating: 8 out of 10