Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle movie review: jungle feeble

Jumanji Welcome to the Jungle red light

MaryAnn’s quick take…

Culturally clueless cinematic vomit, a cynical undertaking embracing the most diminishing clichés it can apply to its characters. Low stakes, and low humor.
I’m “biast” (pro): big fan of Dwayne Johnson, occasional fan of Jack Black
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

More than 20 years after 1995’s Jumanji — the family adventure film about a couple of kids who get sucked into an ancient board game and have to play it to completion to escape — the sequel has arrived… and this time, it’s all about hapless teens who get sucked into a videogame and have to play it to completion to escape. Was anyone demanding a second go at Jumanji? Zathura, the 2005 “spiritual sequel” — which, to be fair, does sound more like marketing baloney than anything else — was a flop. And, to be “fair” to Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, it feels more like a poor go at shoehorning The Rock into yet another action-adventure comedy. You know, for kids. This is, I suspect, an attempt to recapture the unfathomable box-office success of 2012’s deeply terrible Journey 2: The Mysterious Island more than it is even a “spiritual sequel” to Jumanji.

Friends don’t let friends play 90s console games unironically.
Friends don’t let friends play 90s console games unironically.

But what’s that? You thought I said Jungle was about teenagers? Haha LOL *sob*. It is. You see, the thing that is “funny” here — like, it’s meant to be abso-freakin’-lutely hi-larious — is how the kids end up in the adult bodies of the in-game avatars. After a brief opening sequence in which the high-schoolers are played by the more normally unlikely array of 20-something actors (one is even 30 years old), their adolescent ids and neuroses and angsts are poured into the forms of Dwayne Johnson (Baywatch, The Fate of the Furious), Jack Black (Goosebumps, The D Train), Kevin Hart (Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie, The Secret Life of Pets), and Karen Gillan (Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, The Big Short). (Ironically, 30-year-old Gillan is, according to Hollywood, equally suited to be playing a junior prom queen. But that’s more an accidental commentary on the very narrow range of acceptable ages for women onscreen than anything else. So many aspects of this movie are more akin to something other than what it intends to be. This movie is culturally clueless corporate cinematic vomit already, and I haven’t even gotten to the worst stuff yet.)

The “let’s solve late-90s videogame puzzle” sequences have all the verve of an adventure-themed ad for breakfast cereal.

Anyway, the kids — played by Alex Wolff (Patriots Day, My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2), Madison Iseman, Ser’Darius Blain (Camp X-Ray, Star Trek Into Darkness), and Morgan Turner (The Sisterhood of Night, Remember Me) — are a motley batch thrown together while serving detention; they mostly don’t know and/or like each other, the better to whip up a side order of “reluctant” for the buddy comedy to come. While cleaning out a school storeroom, they come across an ancient — from, like the 90s, OMG — console and start playing the Indiana Jones–lite adventure, something to do with finding a sacred jewel in order to lift a curse, blah blah blah. Which somehow transports them into the game’s environment, in the bodies of the game characters. As they traipse through the jungle solving nonsensical late-90s videogame puzzles — in sequences directed by Jake Kasdan (Sex Tape, Bad Teacher) with all the verve of an adventure-themed ad for breakfast cereal — this Jumanji literally becomes like watching people play a videogame… a 20-year-old fourth-rate game at that.

“They’re paying me a pile of money this big, brother! Damn straight I’ll play a stereotype again.”
“They’re paying me a pile of money this big, brother! Damn straight I’ll play a stereotype again.”

The idea of tossing characters into a game and forcing them to play is problematic in a few big ways. The stakes are really low, for one. They quickly learn that they can “die” in the game, but also that they instantly respawn. Sure, they also learn that, as you might expect, they get only three lives, but that’s a helluva lot more than you’d get in an adventure in the real world. (Comedic irony alert! Their school principal, when scolding them over the poor choices that led them to detention in the first place, sagely imparted a bit of adult advice: “You get one life.” Little did he know!) Worse, we never have any idea what would happen if they used up all three of their lives and game-overed; they might just go back to the real world, for all we (and they) know. (That would have made for a shorter movie, at least.) The “message” of the movie is that the kids are supposedly learning stuff in the game that will be useful in the real world, like gaining confidence, but nothing they do in the game actually draws on their own personalities and talents: they’re just using the gameplay “skills” they’ve been assigned, like reading maps or “dance fighting” (*barf*).

Jumanji wants to its wokeness about the absurd sexualization of female videogame characters, and it wants its absurdly sexualized female character, too.

But never mind. The whole shebang is little more than an excuse to have Johnson, Black, Gillan, and Hart run around acting like the “hilariously” “opposite” teens occupying the avatars they represent: The Rock is actually clumsy, scared skinny nerd Spencer, for instance, and isn’t that just a riot; a mincing Black is actually pretty, popular Bethany (sample dialogue: “I like can’t even with this place”). And then the movie thinks it’s piling on additional comedy when everyone defies those stereotypes. Jumanji is, contrary to its bright and goofy surface, a cynical undertaking in embracing the most diminishing clichés that it can apply to its characters and then asking us to cheer at halfhearted swats at them. The most egregious is the attire that Gillan’s avatar is saddled with: she is half naked in a teeny miniskirt short-shorts and a cleavage- and midriff-baring, all-but-sleeveless top, while the men are dressed much more reasonably for the jungle. She complains about it, as well she should. But the meta “excuse” for her clothing — it’s clearly a riff on 1996’s similarly half-naked jungle VG adventurer Lara Croft — only makes it all even worse. The movie wants to have its wokeness about the absurd sexualization of female videogame (and movie) characters, and it wants its absurdly sexualized female character, too. So uncool.

see also:
Jumanji: The Next Level movie review: this game needs to be over

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