"Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle" is lame proof that Hollywood will gamble on any franchise"
By: Steve Pulaski
The fact that the 1996 fantasy-comedy Jumanji now has a sequel is proof-positive that Hollywood and studio conglomerates will leave no stone unturned and no franchise untouched when it comes to rebooting old properties and catering to contemporary hallmarks. Just the idea of a postmodern take on a board-game that transports you into a dangerous jungle starring Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, and Jack Black sounds like the depths of cinematic drudgery, and with that compliments the low-stakes that plague Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle. We already have brand-recognition in regards to the titular property, and we have three of the easiest targets to point and laugh at when they are surrounded by vicious wildlife — not to mention for 90 long minutes, we must watch them act as hopelessly contrived stereotypes of high school teenagers.
Bottom line: if you're going to spend $90 million on a film that's almost guaranteed to leave no cultural impact nor even come close to touching the original film spiritually or otherwise, could you at least hire a writer (or writers in this case) with more sophistication than one who relies on extended sequences of an out-of-body female played by Jack Black and her utter obsession with having a penis?
The film opens in 1996, where a teenager named Alex discovers the Jumanji board-game. He leaves it in his closet, favoring his more advanced video-games, but one day notices the board-game has mysteriously transformed into a cartridge; as soon as he pops it in his console, he is sucked into the game. Twenty years later, four teenagers find themselves in detention together: Spencer (Alex Wolff), a timid nerd who got caught writing essays for his former-friend-turned-football-star "Fridge" (Ser'Darius Blain), who is punished as well, Bethany (Madison Iseman), a self(ie)-obsessed queen bee, and Martha (Morgan Turner), an antagonistic loner. While spending detention in a facilities closet, they stumble upon the old video-game console with the Jumanji cartridge inside, and upon picking their characters, this Breakfast Club is also sucked into the game.
It takes them a good five minutes to piece together who they are, since they become their self-chosen avatars upon entering the cutthroat jungle of Jumanji. During this time, we can be subjected to the lowest common denominator of jokes pertaining to everyone's worst tendencies. The easily frightened Spencer becomes a muscle-bound explorer played by Dwayne Johnson, "Fridge" shrinks a good two feet to become a zoologist played by Kevin Hart, Martha becomes a combat specialist played by Karen Gillan (Guardians of the Galaxy), and Bethany becomes an overweight, male scientist played by Jack Black. They learn via non-playable characters with pre-programmed dialog that a rogue hunter named John Van Pelt (Bobby Cannavale taking over Jonathan Hyde's role in the original film) is out to find a green orb known as the "Jaguar's Eye," and if he obtains it, he'll be able to control all of Jumanji (or something along those lines). They can only return home if they successfully complete this quest and bring the Jaguar's Eye to safety.
Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle never works on a level that doesn't equate to being modestly amusing. Its effects are sharp and its pacing plays similarly to Journey 2: The Mysterious Island, another medium-budget adventure film starring Dwayne Johnson. These films have their place, but the big problem here is that the five (!) screenwriters behind the film never came within striking distance of giving the characters worthwhile dialog and jokes. Everyone and everyone's teenage archetype is played for the most obvious humor imaginable. Spencer is scrawny and afraid of his own shadow, so of course he gets to be former wrestler Dwayne Johnson, while "Fridge" is a high school athlete, so it's appropriate for him to shrink in size and use Kevin Hart's trademark foul mouth and loud voice to get what he wants. Furthermore, a Jack Black sighting in a movie is unfortunately rare these days, so let's diminish his talents by having him impersonate a teen girl with lines like, "I literally can't even with this place" and turn him (and her) into a grossly incompetent caricature. Finally, and perhaps most pathetically, let's take a potentially thoughtful character in Martha and hyper-sexualize her while making a point that video-games do nothing but sexualize their female characters. This is another film that feels made by the same people who threw together The Emoji Movie thinking they knew what kids wanted to see and what constituted as appropriate teen-behavior when the last time they likely "interacted" with a child, or a teenager in this case, was passing one on the street.
The connections to the Robin Williams film that maintains questionable relevance in this day and age is rather thin, save for the aforementioned presence of Van Pelt in a totally different way along with a very poor, half-hearted attempt at connecting a location in the story to Williams's Alan Parrish. Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is technically a sequel to the film, but it does so much differently, to the point of greatly minimizing the significance of the rhyming riddles so integral to the story, that it leaves no doubt in anyone's mind that they could've just successfully marketed this under the film's subtitle. The irony is we live in a time when studios think it's still safer to dust off old franchises like they're board-games buried in the sand and rush them into production with an eight or nine-figure budget instead of gambling on star-power and good writing. Central Intelligence came out last year based on no preexisting property, predicated itself on Dwayne Johnson and Kevin Hart in starring roles, cost $50 million (and probably closer toJumanji's budget after marketing costs), and bankrolled over $200 million. It's reasonable to assume this film under the title Welcome to the Jungle would've had a similarly successful fate.
Yet this is a very fitting circumstance for the Chris Van Allsburg picture-book from 1981. Ever since the Robin Williams film adaptation was released, subsequent installments in the form ofZathura, also based on an Allsburg book, and now Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle have cowardly piggybacked off the film in hopes of receiving a fraction of the same attention and monetary-cut it earned during its initial run. Once more, it amounts to a futile effort that will have the lasting impact akin to a footprint on a beach with a frequent tide.