While I’m normally the first to complain about critics that launch into “[insert franchise here] was my childhood” rants – for once I almost side with them.
I didn’t go to the cinema much as a kid and one of the few VHS I had (and so inevitably watched until it was worn out) was Jumanji. It’s a lovely, fun, heartwarming film that managed to capture the fun and escapism I found when I was truly immersed in games, real or virtual, as a kid. I don’t hold it by as high a standard anymore, and the less said about it’s CGI the better, but it still holds a place as one of the few I would call a childhood favourite.
Now, this sequel is none of those things. But here is where I diverge from the usual “this is my childhood” argument, because I really don’t care. This sequel took what it needed from the original to make what it wanted, and because of that it’s (almost) completely separate and I appreciate that decision – even if I don’t appreciate much else.
Jumanji – Welcome to the Jungle is not so much meta as it is slightly self-aware. It takes the basic expectation of the cast and does the opposite. The Rock is a wuss, Kevin Hart is tall, Jack Black is a teenage girl, and Karen Gillen is… shy? This joke is the entire foundation of the film and is, surprisingly, its strongest aspect.
The film works best when the cast are reacting to their new bodies and bouncing (non-ad-libbed) lines back and forth. It’s Freaky Friday gender-swapping comedy might not be anything particularly original but the charisma of the cast carries it into a few chuckle-worthy moments.
However, that isn’t all Welcome to the Jungle takes from Freaky Friday. The film drags behind it a large collection of teenage melodramatic moments bogging it down at every chance. While normally with action-adventure films I find myself rooting for more character moments, in Jumanji when any scene is reduced to two characters it copies verbatim from the teen movie handbook – cliché and utterly predictable. For a film that’s central concept is being aware of the role it’s actors play it seems to have completely blindsided this aspect in its characters. It’s fault isn’t necessarily that we know everything that’s going to happen from the moment it starts, but that scenes take so long to get there that it frequently loses your attention.
Besides it’s rebranding of Jumanji, Welcome to the Jungle also attempts to serve another dose of nostalgia with it’s 90s era video game setting. While it does occasionally show flashes of funny it’s main source of humour for me was realising how mainstream Hollywood films are still so rooted in the idea that video games are for nerds. The most basic aspects of video games such as lives, NPCs, levels, and cutscenes all need to be explained at a five year old level, and are still usually followed by a “cool” character yelling “English please!” Cue laugh track.
It’s such a careful film, giving just enough to pretend it has a sense of character but at the same time fundamentally offering the same as a standard lowest common denominator blockbuster. It’s video game setting is handled minimally so not to frighten away anyone that thinks they’re stupid. It’s brief notes on gender are there to save it from any controversy as opposed to actually saying anything – as it still launches into full scenes where the audience and characters oggle Karen Gillian. This fear of upsetting anyone does have an upside in the aforementioned lack of references to the original, but it also comes at the cost of being immemorable and for the most part bland.
It earns its “not as bad as I anticipated” reviews, but not by much.
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