dir. Jake Kasdan
reviewed by Dakota Drobnicki
The original Jumanji from 1995 is a nostalgic touchstone of my generation, snuggled right in the time period of Nicktoons and the Windows 95 startup sound. It’s often cited as one of the best Robin Williams movies… at least, by younger folks who likely haven’t seen Good Morning Vietnam, The Fisher King, One Hour Photo or even Toys. Personally, while Robin’s performance does shine and the mythology of the board game is pretty cool, the original Jumanji doesn’t hold up for me. There was a spiritual successor in 2005 called Zathura which is honestly the better movie in a number of aspects, not the least of which are the improved sibling dynamic and effects work.
The trailer for this so-called reboot of the intellectual property had nostalgic hopefuls and movie nerds frothing at the mouth when it first dropped, even in the face of a promising cast. And who can blame them? Sony’s recent track record has been unbelievably shaky and almost desperate in a sense, with their occasional successes undercut by failed reboot after failed reboot (Ghostbusters, Flatliners, Smurfs: The Lost Village) and bad idea after bad idea (The Emoji Movie, Aloha, a 90-minute adaptation of The Dark Tower, cancelling a Jump Street/Men In Black crossover).
On this first installment of “This Ain’t Star Wars!”, your guide to movies you can see after or instead of The Last Jedi for the holiday season, I’m taking a look at this equally feared and anticipated reboot/sequel… and hot damn, this is good! It’s nothing great, but it’s pretty good! Keep reading to find out more, or take the plunge into this star-studded jungle adventure and then come back to see what our common ground is.
A jogger discovers the Jumanji board on the beach it was left on at the end of the first movie and brings it to his gamer son, who dismisses it until it transforms itself into a… Famicom cartridge? He tries out the cartridge on his bootleg Atari console and gets sucked into the game. Cut to twenty years later, where the second bootleg Breakfast Club of 2017 (after the Power Rangers reboot) discover the game in detention, get sucked in, and embody their avatars— played by Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Karen Gillan and Jack Black.
In the newfangled Jumanji video game, they are all in charge of returning a magic green jewel to the giant jaguar mountain after the game’s underdeveloped villain (Bobby Cannavale) pulled it out and cursed the entire land in the process. The gang needs to return it before they run out of lives, and who knows what would happen if they game over?
Attention gamers! This is your movie right here! The movie’s best card up its sleeve is its clever usage of modern video game tropes— cutscenes, poorly programmed NPCs, poorly balanced character stats, inappropriately skimpy clothing on the sole female avatar, and my personal favorite: the lives counter tattooed on all the characters’ wrists. That reminded me in a cheeky way of the atrocious PC game Jurassic Park: Trespasser where, no joke, you checked your health by looking down at a tattoo on your female protagonist’s breast.
If they had decided to make this a PS4 game, I can only wonder how they would’ve worked in jokes about microtransactions, DLC, overly spelled out instructions, direct Uncharted references, and who knows what else?
If you aren’t a gamer and wouldn’t immediately notice the jokes, don’t worry; Dwayne Johnson will explain exactly what cutscenes and NPCs are in a manner that feels more geared toward the audience than his team members. The usage of other tropes will explain themselves.
Expect the story to be stock and simplistic, since it’s basically just going from point A to point B in order to return a MacGuffin to its rightful place. The real heart of the movie lies in the performances of its leads, written with the personalities the teenagers playing as them; a lot of its best moments rise from the contrasts between the insecure teens and their amped up avatars. Jack Black is the shining star of all four, dead-on in his performance of a teenage girl in an overweight man’s body.
In spite of its strong performances and clever video game humor, the movie does still have a number of issues that keep it from greatness. By making the board game literally transform itself into a game cartridge, the premise sets itself up a bit too easily and conveniently; personally, I would’ve liked to see a few minutes of some Peter Molyneux-type madman video game developer somehow cook up a cursed prototype fueled by the board game, in essence turning the game into a Sonic.exe-esque creepypasta.
The movie also beats its overarching theme of triumphing over one’s own insecurities into the audience’s heads with multiple scenes following the same quick formula: character is too scared to try a thing, other characters tell them to try that thing, character immediately tries it and does fine. It’s a good message for the kids in the crowd, but it gets old when each of the avatars get at least two scenes like that.
I also would’ve liked to see Bobby Cannavale get more screen time! His villain is creepy as a good video game villain can be, but he only gets a few minutes of time to shine. Granted, his continued presence does also bring up an inconsistency in the movie’s rules (so the opening exposition by Nigel Billingsley is being watched as a cutscene by the leads, but what about the other cutaway scenes involving Cannavale?), but I nonetheless would’ve liked more of him.
If you don’t like Star Wars, have family you’re seeing a movie with who don’t like Star Wars, or you just want another fun escapist movie to hit up after Star Wars, this one will not do you wrong, especially if you’re deep enough into video games to get the movie’s satirical elements. Truth be told, it might be one of your better kid-friendly options going forward, even with occasional profanity and a number of surprisingly brutal deaths for the leads.
Perhaps don’t take your overly nitpicky relative to this, though, unless you know they can shut that sense off and go with it; the weird cross-generational optics with the video game alone (a Famicom cartridge in an Atari-like system with a PS1-era title screen and NES controllers) will drive them absolutely bonkers, and it might not set a good tone with them.