Release Date: December 20, 2017
Director: Jake Kasdan
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 119 minutes
It seems, every now and again, the thought of rebooting some Robin Williams’ vehicle floats across the vacuous mind of a Hollywood executive, only for that individual to balk in horror from it as they fathom the intense backlash such an act would cause. The delusional cultural nostalgia surrounding the riffing comic humanist has retroactively rendered his suspect acting batting average into an oeuvre of indisputable classics.
Yet even with this in mind, the rumours and subsequent production and release of Jake Kasdan’s Jumanji reboot was met with little to no controversy. Aptly subtitled Welcome to the Jungle for prime advertising reasons and nothing else, the new spin on Joe Johnston’s adaptation of Chris Van Allsburg children’s book, centring on the reality-altering properties of a magical board game, is most likely far too removed from the initial Williams schema of wild-man antics to register as tarnishing a reputation.
Where Johnston milled half-hearted chuckles from the dissociative experience of having elements of the untamed jungle forcibly invade your sense of domesticity, Kasdan’s transports you into the game’s world for a conceptually less interesting but more level-headed action/comedy.
In lieu of a bare-chested clown holding the film down, the film supplies four teenage archetypes in an awkward game nerd, Alex; a conceited, popular girl, Bethany; a massive football jock, Fridge; and shy, reclusive Martha. Together they are a Breakfast Club waiting to happen, but instead of an afternoon of therapeutic self-examination and trope challenging, their detention together leads them to finding the Jumanji game in their high school’s basement.
Updated from a tabletop briefcase to a video game console, one that looks like an Atari 2600 that uses Famicon controllers and has PlayStation buttons, our socially strained group selects their characters and are whisked away to the jungle adventure world of Jumanji. Much like the console that houses it, this land seems to be an inexplicable pastiche of locales known for exoticism to a Western mindset.
It is filmed in Hawaii but dressed up to be the Amazon, where villains with South-African accents and Mad Max-esque leather outfits confront our heroes at a very Middle-Eastern-looking bazaar. Internal world consistency is often an important aspect of game design, as to not confuse the player, but as we follow our troop through their trials that the nefarious game cartridge puts them through, the rules are loose and ill defined at best.
The selecting of their avatars for use in Jumanji would most obviously lead them to embodying their antitheses for the sake of personal growth and lead the audience to finally watch the actors they were promised on the poster. Nebbish Alex, for example, gets to run around the treacherous jungle in Dwayne Johnson’s hulking mass as the intrepid Dr. Smolder Bravestone (actually), whose bravery and competence clash comically with the one technically holding the controller.
This sense of personality contrast runs through the casting, with the vane Bethany playing as a bespectacled Jack Black and the dull Martha becoming a commando-like Karen Gillian, and leads to some generally amusing body-swap comedy played well against type. Black gets to speak in a falsetto, Valley girl accent and be terrified by his own genitals; Gillian becomes self-conscious of her body and intimated by the opposite sex when not using martial arts on it; and Johnson displays an intense fear of squirrels and is pleasantly bemused by the size of his own biceps.
Fridge sadly is the only one of the group that learns no lesson because his chosen character had less to do with an ironic mirroring of his personality and more to do with Kevin Hart wanting to recycle a lot of his “I’m shorter than the average guy” material from his stand-up routine ad nauseum. Despite this one reductive point, the leads are the strength of the film, and allowing them to skew their performance in such oddly specific self-commentary gives Jumanji, at the very least, a hook.
Once our band of heroes moves on to the objectives of the game after getting accustomed to their new bodies, that’s when the film relapses into overly familiar action film beats. An evil explorer in the vane of “René Belloq if raised by wolves” has taken a magical jewel from a jaguar statue that granted him mental power over the fauna of Jumanji’s wilds and cursed the land because of game reasons.
Woefully underdeveloped, he obstructs our heroes’ quest with waves of goons and animals in predictable action set pieces that gradually tick down our heroes’ lives, thus raising the stakes because, “if you die in the game,” ecetera, ecetera. The action spectacle itself is serviceable if uninspired, and the cast comes well prepared, both with an undercutting quip in the thick of a shootout with motorcycle bandits and while running from a stampede of hippos.
As they carve their way through this jungle to reunite the jewel with its proper fixture and inevitably meet up with Nick Jonas, whose charisma as an actor begins and ends with the reaction “hey look, it’s Nick Jonas,” the film drags on well after our playing characters have finished their respective journeys of self discovery. There’s little gravitas to a half-baked villain of questionable motivation facing off against our group even when they’ve been whittled down to their last lives in a game where the rules seem open to interpretation. Even as he shoots in a frenetic, spectacle-highlighting manner, Kasdan can barely get a rise out of the script.
Welcome to the Jungle is not the disaster that a reboot (one 20 years after the fact) can be, especially when a failure unintentionally equates to tarnishing the good name of Robin Williams in a fan’s mind. It’s simple and, often because of the work put in by the cast, earnestly funny, but familiar to a fault and leaves you wondering how exactly its video-game world functions as a game (an open-world RPG with lives and a flirting mini-game?).
It is possible that this was uncontroversial, not due to it being a Williams remake but because it is harmless blockbuster entertainment that promotes resting one’s mental faculties while indulging. There is fun to be had in the wilderness of Jumanji once you take a machete to the excess foliage of its script and cut to the endearing characters at its core.