Review: ‘Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle’ Continues to Work the Johnson-Hart Odd-Couple Vibe in a Reboot That’s Doing Too Damn Much
Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle has a board game and a reference to Robin Williams’s character in the preceding film, but any other connections to the original? Nope, that’s about it. From its violence and heavy action sequences to its reliance on sexually themed humor, Welcome to the Jungle does not feel at all aligned with the movie that gave us the glory of Williams’s unkempt, overgrown beard, or the wondrous sight of vines and jungle growth overtaking a bougie New Hampshire colonial, or a narrative tackling regret and loss. This is a mostly unrelated action movie relying on a nostalgic connection to draw in viewers, and very little of its vibe overlaps with the film that came before.
Yes, different can be good; it’s foolish, in a way, to expect the same thing over and over and over and over again from the things we like, to become so obsessed as fans that we refuse to accept any version of something that isn’t exactly what we wanted. But Welcome to the Jungle sticks out so damn much because practically nothing here really syncs up with what we’ve already established or learned about this game, and because its reliance on objectifying women and making jokes about dicks is so prevalent.
Suddenly Jumanji can change formats. Suddenly it has the ability to interact with players as a guiding force. Suddenly the in-game villain isn’t a big-game hunter, but a guy who controls those very same animals to kill for him instead. Suddenly there’s a question of the game needing to sustain itself internally, and therefore needing external participation to maintain that. Expanding the world of a concept is great! But the story that Welcome to the Jungle is expanded for is yet another teen-self-actualization movie, the kind of thing we already received this year with the rebooted Power Rangers, and the humor is mostly of the odd-couple Dwayne Johnson is big, Kevin Hart is small variety, the kind of thing we’ve already seen in Central Intelligence. Most of Welcome to the Jungle is familiar, and the new stuff — well, the new stuff is weirdly raunchy and often sexist, and it’s mostly forgettable.
The film is set again in Brantford, New Hampshire, where four teens attend the local high school together: Simon (Alex Wolff), a nerd and avid gamer; Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain), a well-liked athlete; Bethany (Madison Iseman), a social media obsessive who uses her looks to gain followers; and Martha (Morgan Turner), concerned with getting into Princeton and resentful of the more popular crowd. Simon and Fridge used to be best friends but grew apart over time; Bethany is the exact kind of girl Martha immediately considers vapid; and the mousy, “plain” Martha would rarely be noticed by someone like Bethany. So of course, they all get sucked into the Jumanji video game while stuck in detention together, and end up embodying character avatars that are the opposite of who they are in real life.
Simon becomes the tanned, muscular, tattooed, and imposing Dr. Smolder Bravestone (Johnson), whose strength of “smoldering intensity” is used primarily to inspire female thirst. Fridge loses substantial height and muscle mass as the zoologist and weapons valet Mouse Finbar (Hart), but he’s happy he’s still black. Martha sports a crop top and short shorts as the “killer of men” and martial arts expert Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan). And Bethany, thinking that the “curvy” Professor Sheldon Oberon would be a woman, ends up in the rounder, bearded, and decidedly not female body of Jack Black.
Within the Jumanji video game, each character has three lives, and they’re forced to work together to retrieve a jewel that Bobby Cannavale’s villain Russel Van Pelt stole and is using to control all the animals in the jungle (naturally, he does stuff like have centipedes crawl into his ears and scorpions hide in his mouth). If they run out of lives, they could die, but if they can’t beat the game, they’ll be stuck in it forever. Simon, finally courageous and strong, doesn’t think that would be the worst thing, but forever in Jumanji is an option that rightly freaks out Fridge, Martha, and Bethany. Can they, in the words of their high school principal, figure out “who they want to be”?
In Welcome to the Jungle, that journey of self-reflection is mostly focused on jokes about dicks (an entire subplot revolves around Bethany’s fascination with her penis, her asking Simon and Fridge about it, her regret that she can’t Instagram it, and, of course, her eventual erection; Black sells it with a lilting delivery, but the material is still meh) and mocking how women flirt, as well as an underlying current of meanness in how Simon and Fridge treat each other. They constantly physically fight and deceive one another; in casting Hart, the movie guarantees that Fridge’s personality is constantly stuck in chip-on-the-shoulder mode, and his character never really advances past that. In contrast, Martha and Bethany become friends after Bethany tells the other girl she’s pretty, and the validation from someone who had never noticed her before is somehow enough for Martha, who gets reduced from someone wanting a challenging future for herself to someone who is thrilled to learn how to entice men.
Plus, the script portrays seductive dancing and football plays as the only ways to successfully get things done while countless mercenaries with guns and animals with fangs and claws are trying to kill you. I suppose that’s a very teenage way to consider the world — but it’s also kinda dumb.
It’s a bummer how very little Cannavale has to do in this movie (although the man does look very rakish in smudged black eyeshadow), and there’s a scene in a bazaar with people in steampunk outfits, traditional Asian dress, and biker-gang gear that would be a fascinating entry into the various corners of the Jumanji world if it weren’t used only as a place where Johnson kills people. Welcome to the Jungle is more focused on implicitly sending the message that attractive people are happier, and that violence is an effective way to solve problems, and that it’s very funny when women talk about penises. Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but I was happier when Robin Williams was realizing that his childhood selfishness ruined people’s lives, and that his actions had very real consequences. That emotional trauma worked for me! Welcome to the Jungle never achieves that level of impact or interest.
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