The familiar beats of “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle”

From left are Jack Black, Nick Jonas, Karen Gillan, Dwayne Johnson and Kevin Hart in “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle.”

“Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” bills itself as a standalone sequel, a descriptor that seems immediately counterintuitive though it is immediately intrinsic to 21st century blockbusters. A standalone sequel is a film in the same universe that has little narrative connection to its predecessors and which can be appreciated on its own. Cinematic universes have become increasingly valuable to major film studios in the last two decades, reflecting their reliance on familiarity. And so, two decades after the family drama “Jumanji” comes “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle,” which presents itself as an action adventure comedy film. It is the comedic bits of this new “Jumanji” that resound the most. And, to a larger extent, this makes sense. “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” is a film that depends on its sturdiness, its dependability and, especially, its familiarity.

The film’s opening teases both the past and present. A teenager is given a board-game by his father but shows little interest in it as he’s busy with his videogames. The board game (the eponymous “Jumanji”) in its sentient way transforms into a videogame cartridge, which he picks up enthusiastically. There is then a flash of green light and he goes missing. It’s a good prologue, marrying both the foreboding overtones of the original film with what this one sets out to do. The most impressive thing about “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” is its attempt to situate the classic board game in the contemporary world by turning it into a video game. It’s not that it’s an ingenious idea, but it promises something thoughtful, which the rest of the film does not deliver on.

Twenty years after the prologue, we encounter four of the most archetypal high school students – the smart and awkward Spencer; his former best friend, the dumb jock “Fridge;” the materialistic mean girl Bethany; and the sullen and smart Martha. In true “Breakfast Club” fashion, they end up in detention together. They happen upon the video game Jumanji and they, too, get sucked into the game. Except we go with them, as they are now played by actors portraying the avatars they have chosen to play the game. And so we get Jack Black, Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart and Karen Gillan all playing teenagers trapped in adult bodies, which is the film’s main hook as the teens embody incredibly unusual adult types. So the everyman Spencer becomes the hyper masculine and muscled Dr Bravestone (Johnson), and the athletic Fridge becomes the weak Franklin “Mouse” Finbar (Hart). Sullen Martha becomes the requisite female eye-candy in the form of Gillan’s Ruby Roundhouse and vapid Bethany is Professor Sheldon Oberon, an overweight cartographer as played by Black. Jack Black playing a teenage girl is explicitly meant to be the most compelling of these manifestations, and it’s the only real one the film mines for humour and/or drama, throughout.

Despite the potential for adventure or action, it is the comedy portion where the film wants to lay its head, and it’s very clear it’s where director Jake Kasdan (notable for the biopic parody “Walk Hard) is most comfortable. And, so, he directs the film functionally, somewhat dependably creating something that’s adequate. There’s no need to discuss plot events because we already know where the film goes. The four teens must come to love themselves and each other, they must realise that life is not a game and that you only get one chance (these words are actually spoken early on to them, with no hint of irony). And it’s all very, familiar and inoffensive. And that’s the thing, “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” is fine but it is hard to muster enthusiasm for it either way. If you were sincerely interested in working toward seeing it then it will be just what you expect it to be. And that’s all fine. In fact, my somewhat ambivalent response is somewhat averse to the generally (albeit quietly) enthusiastic response it has gotten. Despite the less than enthusiastic notices for the 1995 “Jumanji” though, this 22-year-old follow up to it underscores a current film culture issue that troubles me.

The dynamics of the board game were, critically, quite different in the original film. In addition to not transferring itself into a video game, that “Jumanji” also featured the elements of the game world coming into the real world, making for chaos as well as drama. First and foremost that film was a drama. And the concept of the game, that blurring of the line between fantasy and reality, between possibility and impossibility, is one of the richest bedrocks of art and literature. There is much to mine here. So as proficient as this new Jumanji is at what it does, how little it tries to do makes it feel insufficient. There’s no real desire to interrogate any of the larger themes that could be at work here. And, loathe as I am to criticise a movie for what it’s not rather than what it is, it does seem informative that the two decades later sequel to a family drama thriller is now a comedy. It’s the strongest manifestation of the 21st century’s postmodern irony and blockbuster entertainment taking pains to be as irreverent and removed from its subject as possible. So, “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” cannot just have its children aged up as they get sucked into the game (or in the case of the original, spending twenty years in the game and aging up naturally), it must have them being distilled to us through avatars who are diametrically opposed to their actual characters so that everything that happens comes with some aspect of remove. This is not a knock on the body switching genre – Tom Hanks in “Big” and Jamie Lee Curtis in “Freaky Friday” are too easily readily examples of the passion that can be mined with a good body-switch, but both those films are playing at larger parameters. “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” does not want to make a lasting impression, it just wants to divert your attention for a couple of hours. And at that, it is successful. Is it churlish of me that I wanted something more?

“Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” is now playing in theatres.

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