Having picked up a MoviePass recently, I’ve been making it to theaters a bit more often, and that means I’ve been checking out movies I may have overlooked. And that’s why I’m begging you: don’t overlook Jumanji.
There are a ton of solid reasons to pass over it. Chief among them, though, is the idea that it’s a movie studio trying to cash in on a fan-favorite 90s movie – one that starred the late Robin Williams in one of his many beloved roles. Remaking such a movie threatens to overwrite the original, giving people a modern incarnation of the movie to hang onto instead of that silly outdated one no one cares about anymore. That seems to be the sentiment when I look at my Facebook and Twitter feeds – that it’s a simple cash in. But it’s anything but that.
Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle takes the base concept of Jumanji and uses it to tell a totally fresh story and lovingly lampoon video games at the same time.
The original Jumanji was, of course, about a board game exploding out into the real world. Based on a picture book by the same name, it had the characters playing a lavishly-crafted board game that would give gaming nuts a heart attack just by gazing upon it. As they progressed through the game, each new event would appear in their house, in the real world.
This newest take, starring everybody’s favorite human, Dwayne Johnson, flips that on its head. Instead if bursting forth from the game and into the real world, it pulls its players into the game. In doing so, the movie has the chance to totally immerse us in the world of Jumanji and do things with the concept that aren’t possible with the original take on the idea.
When Jumanji realizes its character isn’t going to play it as a board game, it transforms into a video game to snatch its prey. Instead of just using this as an excuse to pull the characters into a new world, though, the story takes the whole stack of baggage that comes with video games and starts digging in.
There will be what some may consider spoilers from this point forward, so use the same caution you would tiptoeing through a pit of snakes.
Almost immediately we see the movie playing with the idea of lives in games. This is an increasingly irrelevant mechanic in games these days, but it’s still a stable feature of many, and it lets the movie play with the fear of death and effects of death in interesting ways. Characters literally explode or just disintegrate and drop in from the sky in perfect health. Things that would be insurmountable obstacles even for Dr. Smolder Bravestone himself are circumvented by the characters playing with, quite literally, their lives. A moment that would be treated like a Mission: Impossible-style snatch-and-grab in a standard action is turned from tension into comedy when a character ends up trampled by rhinos. Another character essentially scales a mountain in reverse, turning what’s been an excuse for comedy into one of the emotional peaks of the movie.
The idea of choosing your character model and all the weirdness that comes with that is at the very core of the movie, and fuels a ton of the movie’s best jokes. Each character has to tangle with their own identity and how it differs from the character they end up inhabiting. The characters have to find confidence in forms they’re not used to, with each pushed out of their usual safe spaces. Spencer gets the typical male power fantasy when he steps into Dwayne Johnson’s skin, while the popular Bethany ends up as Dr. Sheldon Oberon – played by Jack Black.
Not only is this great for character development, it’s clearly a blast for the actors, too. Dwayne Johnson gets to play a naturally timid character and admire his own muscles. Jack Black playing a teenage girl could’ve gone horribly wrong, but somehow his performance doesn’t seem to step into any of the pitfalls it could’ve. Karen Gillan’s character is a full-on send-up of the original version of Tomb Raider’s Lara Croft character, and the teenage girl inhabiting her body is simultaneously immediately aware of how little she’s wearing and how foreign this ultra-sexy form is for her. Kevin Hart is, as you might expect, mostly just irritated that he’s short, but that doesn’t keep him from having his share of stand-out moments.
Aside from these character moments, the movie finds other ways to riff on games. Aside from the core players newly trapped in the game, everyone in the game world is an NPC – a non-player character. The people you interact with that say things like, “Welcome to Corneria!” and “I like swords!” and nothing else. The actors dutifully repeat their lines and ‘animations’ as the players repeatedly confuse them for people. In another moment, the movie cuts away from the characters, and they’re all aware that they’ve been cut away from. One of the characters explains that this, of course, is a cutscene, something games use to tell background story.
Even if you go in knowing about these moments, the movie is packed with tons of great action and comedy. It never relies on nostalgia, only referencing the past in the most peripheral ways. This is a fresh movie that does something new – it makes a ‘video game movie’ watchable.