Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is a nowhere movie. It isn’t set anywhere, doesn’t have any real characters at all, nor does it have literally anything to say at all. It’s like a mirage, when you’re in the theatre you could swear that you’re watching a film but as the credits roll you realise: you’ve been hoodwinked, and the illusion dries up at your feet.
I should be angrier at it I guess. I really dislike having my time wasted in such a manner, but there’s something quietly amiable about its placelessness. When we open on the lives of our teenage set of mismatched heroes we note their struggles are not broadly painted enough to be universal but neither are they given the time to develop into specificity.
They are: the nerdy guy; the cool guy; the nerdy girl; and the cool girl. And I suppose the editor has a mandate to get their stars on the screen within ten minutes given how shoddily these personas are constructed. I want to absolve the young cast here of most of the blame, they’re charming enough. It’s not their fault that they could have been portrayed equally well by cardboard cutouts puppeteered by disinterested middle aged men shouting exposition from offscreen.
I could hazard a guess at who those men would be too, the five assembled screenwriters of this nightmare project. Who, for a team tasked with writing a story about teenagers sucked into a video game, seem to have done the minimum possible research into both teenagers and video games. Hell, I’m sure if I get hold of the screenplay they’ll have written it videogame all one word like that. Sure, video games, especially non-existent ones, are no sacred text. I’d not mind the rules being bent if they led to a compelling story (they don’t).
Less appealing is all the characters acting like the kids in the first fifteen minutes of The Breakfast Club, y’know before they gain any depth. At least in Power Rangers last year they managed to get most of the way through one Breakfast Club. This here fucks it so bad because it’s so desperate for all its famous actors to play their shtick that any meaningful characterisation is kneecapped at the start.
To rush through the setup, these four mismatched kids all find themselves in detention. While clearing out the school basement they find an old cart system running a game called Jumanji, they all select their characters and get sucked into the game. You’ll never guess what misfortune awaits them. The cool sporty guy now finds himself inhabiting the body of the diminutive Kevin Hart. The meek nerdy guy is suddenly Dwayne Johnson; the nerdy (massive air quotes)’plain’ girl becomes a skimpily dressed Karen Gillen and the cool (read vain) girl is, horror of horrors, Jack Black.
Together they must traverse the jungle they find themselves in and return a crystal to a lost jungle shrine in order to defeat a bad guy and return home. Then entire affair is nominally divided up by the concept of video game levels, which is really an excuse to hurry the plot along from encounter to encounter without having to trouble itself with the hard work of constructing a compelling quest or establishing any clear geography or sense to the world.
So they do that, moving from one bland setpiece to another. There’s a motorcycle chase, and a Middle Eastern flavoured market fight, and a helicopter chase. None of them are that exciting, the videogame setup gives everyone three lives which means it lands a couple good jokes with people unexpectedly dying and then destroys all the tension for most of the running time because these people can literally die without serious consequence.
Aside from that you might think it would be fun to see these adult actors being teenagers. It’s been a workable premise for a long time, Freaky Friday, Big, 13 Going on 30, every decade has at least one. They’re not being teenagers though, each performance runs off in a different direction and nobody is doing the work of rounding them up. Kevin Hart is going full Hart, Dwayne is playing anti-The-Rock except when he isn’t and is just legit being full hero. Karen Gillen goes so hard into playing the bodily awkwardness that she seems half possessed. And poor Jack Black is lumbered with the thudding characterisation of whatever this desperately out of touch group of old white men think that a contemporary teenage girl is.
The poor man, he has just about two scenes when his character is not screaming inanities about her phone and good god in those moments does he make it work. While he only does about a film a year now when working with the right material he still proves himself to be one of the most humanist working comic actors. There is a typically poorly judged moment when the two girls discuss how to cope with the pressures of being a teenager. Of course the dudes who wrote this have zero fucking idea, but in that moment Black sublimates himself into the character.
This is obviously not used as a stepping board into wider ideas of gender or the nature of identity. No, that would complicate things when the film is far more invested in putting Karen Gillen into a sweet sexy outfit. The perspective swinging between outrage that a video game would objectify a woman in this way (who’re you kidding guys) and the implicit notion that this uptight gal could do with learning to be sexier anyway. It’s a real poor look for this movie.
Anyway, things carry on for a while, Bobby Cannavale and Nick Jonas get utterly anonymous bit parts. There is, I think, one reference to the original which is so stupid and vague that nobody will appreciate it, they’ll just get it. That’s the level that this film is playing on, it’s not trying hard enough to be appreciated, it’s just there to be got. Consume the content, burn two hours of your life. I don’t even have the energy to get properly angry at it.
It didn’t have any energy at all.
Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is currently screening in UK cinemas