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Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle

I’m writing this from out of town, during a Memorial Day weekend in which I’ve already covered everything of interest in the multiplexes and I don’t know any of the arthouses in the area. So this seemed like a pretty good time to catch up on a movie that I missed out on due to my “Ruby Lounge” hiatus, and one that came highly recommended by many friends and relatives. In fact, it got a surprisingly good critical reception and a wonderful box office take.

Imagine my disappointment to find that Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle was every bit as awful as I had feared it would be.

Revisiting a franchise twenty years after its heyday is always a dicey proposition, especially after its most iconic lead actor tragically passed away too soon. While the solution is typically a reboot, these filmmakers were always clear in their intention to craft a direct continuation, and I have to give them credit for not taking the easy route. But then I have to take that credit right back because this “sequel” has precisely jack shit to do with the original movie.

The premise for this one concerns four paper-thin high school stereotypes. Alex Wolff (I assume his mediocre big brother Nat was unavailable) plays a nerd who shouts out his moves while he’s playing video games and reads aloud as he types on his computer. Ser’Darius Blain plays a jock who bullies Wolff’s character into “tutoring him” (read: Wolff’s character does all the jock’s homework for him). Madison Iseman appears as a vapid self-centered blonde whose life revolves around her Instagram selfies. Rounding out the crew is Morgan Turner, here playing the counter-culture wallflower.

Ten minutes into this movie, I wanted to forget I had ever met these characters.

But then the four of them get sent to detention and they’re tasked with cleaning out a supply closet. Without any kind of adult supervision, because that totally makes sense. An old video game console has somehow found its way in there, and our four teenage disgraces decide to take a break and give it a try. One moment, the characters are choosing which characters they want to play; the next, they’re zapped into the game as their characters. Now they’re being respectively played by Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Jack Black, and Karen Gillan.

Let’s start with the obvious: None of this has anything to do with the 1995 movie! It’s seriously like somebody took a made-for-TV script that was lying around, scratched off the serial numbers, and slapped the Jumanji brand onto it. While I appreciate the basic concept of characters getting pulled into the game — that could have been a neat reversal of the original film, in which the game invades the world of the players — it flat doesn’t work here because of some deus ex machina that allows Jumanji to remake itself as a video game, like that makes any kind of sense.

Of course, it also doesn’t help that the film takes place in a world where motorcycles and rocket launchers are commonplace, and the wilderness of Hawaii looks absolutely nothing like the rainforest that the old Parrish house was briefly transformed into. I won’t even get started on the “Van Pelt” surname and how its use here doesn’t make a lick of sense. From start to finish, the filmmakers consistently use the Jumanji name without even the slightest bit of effort into making a world consistent with what we saw of Jumanji in the 1995 film, never mind the source material by Chris Van Allsburg. I don’t know who the hell thought it was a good idea to let Jake Kasdan direct this, but the guy who gave us Sex TapeBad Teacher, and Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story was demonstrably the wrong choice to craft a family adventure fantasy picture.

The CGI is awful, the score is uninspired, the visuals pale in comparison to other big-budget CGI spectaculars, and the comedy is painfully drawn out at times. But the script. This fucking script. There were no less than four credited writers on this project (not including the credits obligingly given to Chris Van Allsburg and the writers of the 1995 movie) and I want to call out every single one of them.

  • Chris McKenna, who made his debut in 2008 with an animated movie called Igor that nobody remembers. His career was apparently on the uptick after that, with writing gigs for “American Dad” and “Community”. He also worked on the scripts for The Lego Batman Movie, Spider-Man: Homecoming, and the upcoming Ant-Man and the Wasp. He’s credited under “Screen story by”, so I’ll assume that he turned in the first and best draft before the other three writers came in and somehow made it worse.
  • Erik Sommers, a TV writer who apparently did a lot of work for Comedy Central. Because when I want a sequel that honors the all-ages fun of the 1995 original movie, I want the guy who wrote for “Crank Yankers” and “Drawn Together.”
  • Scott Rosenberg, who still belongs in Hollywood exile for helping to inflict Kangaroo Jack upon the world.
  • Jeff Pinkner, who recently gave us the screenplays for such colossal cinematic disappointments as The Amazing Spider-Man 2The 5th Wave, and The Dark Tower.

Together, these four created what has to be the worst screenplay I’ve sat through in a very long time. It’s not enough that the boilerplate plot is boring and the boilerplate characters are unlikeable. It’s not even enough to tack on a couple of empty references to the ’95 original and bend the premise over backwards so the connection to the previous movie still doesn’t make any sense.

No, this script goes to a whole ‘nother level of awful because every single line is wretched. And I’m talking every single line. The jokes are all crass and threadbare, the themes are expressed in heavy-handed ways, and I wanted to strangle the characters with every predictable cliched word out of their mouths. The exposition is something else entirely, with the characters endlessly repeating shit we already knew, either because we’ve already seen it in this film or because we’ve seen it in so many other films. But worst of all, there are the endless explanations of video games and how they work, as if there’s a single person in the target demographic or in this movie who is seriously so ignorant about video games that they need an explanation for what a Non-Playable Character is.

So is there anything the least bit enjoyable about this movie? Oh, yes. Their names are Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Jack Black, and Karen Gillan.

These four are such experienced camera hogs that they have no problem taking godawful dialogue and making a meal of it. They are utterly shameless in acting like idiotic high schoolers stuck in different bodies. They’re all having such a good time making fun of themselves and each other that it’s hard not to laugh right along with them. The dialogue may be a joke from start to finish, but it’s so much more effective with actors who know enough to make it sound intentionally funny. Additionally, it makes a subtle yet important difference to hear ridiculous dialogue from stereotypical video game characters — who were never designed to be realistic — as opposed to stereotypical teenagers whom we’re somehow supposed to take seriously as flesh-and-blood human beings.

There are even a few good actors in the supporting cast. Nick Jonas (seriously, a Jonas Brother, for fuck’s sake) is surprisingly effective as the “fifth player” who comes in later on (the movie is still recent enough that I won’t go into details), and Rhys Darby is a riot as the NPC who helps to guide our heroes through their quest. But Bobby Canavale as the overacting archvillain? This role is so far beyond Canavale’s comfort zone that casting him for this was a huge mistake. On top of naming the character after the villain of the previous film, because the filmmakers obviously didn’t understand the first thing about the original Van Pelt or what made him such a strong antagonist in the ’95 film.

And then of course we have the main thematic thrust of the film, in which our young heroes learn who they really are by living through their video game alter egos. The two social outcasts discover their courage and inner strength by playing seasoned badasses, and the more popular kids are taught humility by playing the weaker and uglier — but no less useful — characters. It’s certainly not a bad conceit for a family picture, and it might have been far more effective in the hands of more intelligent filmmakers. And also, if it had even the slightest iota of a connection with Jumanji!

To be clear, I get why Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle has its fans. Even if I’m not a die-hard fan of Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, or Jack Black, I get their appeal and I understand why there are so many who love to watch them work. All three of them are on peak form here, with Karen Gillan matching them all pound-for-pound, so of course their shared comedic talents and screen presence will be entertaining to watch. But that’s where my praise has to end, because the direction is terrible and the writing is outrageously lazy. It’s crass, stupid, and instantly dated in a way that the original movie wasn’t.

I’m not mad at this movie because a cash-in sequel of Jumanji made two decades after the fact turned out to be awful. That was a given. I’m mad because the filmmakers took on the brand recognition of Jumanji and were so clearly not interested in doing anything with it. It’s such a damn shame that the filmmakers tried to make a sequel to Jumanji when they so obviously wanted to make another movie entirely. The movie might have been stronger without the baggage of those expectations, especially given the more adult-oriented comedy that these filmmakers are used to (again, see Sex Tape, “Drawn Together”, Bad Teacher, etc.).

If you want a brainless guilty pleasure loaded with talented comedians mugging for the camera, this is your movie and I wouldn’t take it away from you. But it’s not my kind of movie at the best of times, and certainly not when it tries to ride the coattails of a movie I grew up with or the children’s book that inspired it.

2 Comments

  1. Comment by Jack:

    Which is the superior movie, this or “Pan”?

  2. Comment by Curiosity Inc.:

    Oh, Pan is the worst. By a mile. Not even close.

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