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Non-Review Review: Jumanji – Welcome to the Jungle

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is a weird and interesting experiment, in part because it is a nostalgic and belated sequel that remains caught between its past and the present.

Welcome to the Jungle joins a long (and perhaps undistinguished) line of twenty-first century franchise revivals for beloved nineties properties. The original Jumanji was a hardly a breakout hit, even if it did make an impression on a younger generation who would have grown up on it as part of Robin Williams’ nineties family-friendly oeuvre along with Hook or Ms. Doubtfire. Indeed, Jumanji is arguably the nineties Robin Williams film most perfectly suited to a revival like this, in that it involves a premise that can be divorced from its iconic and beloved star.

Franchises find a way.

At the same time, Jumanji is undoubtedly near the bottom of nineties adventure films in need of a revival, lurking in the shadow of other resurrected blockbusters like Independence Day or Jurassic Park. Perhaps because of this distance, and perhaps because of the lack of a true cult iconography, Jumanji serves as an interesting control case. This is a film with one leg in the present, aimed at what modern families expect from blockbuster entertainment. The other leg it planted firmly in the past, harking back to certain aspects of formula that seem almost quaint.

Welcome to the Jungle is not a particularly good film, but it is an interesting one. It serves as a prism through which certain aspects of nostalgia might be deconstructed and explored.

Players.

A lot of Welcome to the Jungle feels very old-fashioned, and not just the aspects inherited from the original film. The movie is very traditional and conservative in how it treats character arcs and development. The first act establishes the central children, and very clearly (and very bluntly) establishes what each of the four central characters need to learn about themselves over the next two hours so that the audience can absorb the life lessons alongside them.

Of course, Welcome to the Jungle approaches its teenage characters like a lot of family films, creating a sense that the writers are roughly familiar with the concept of a teenager but have never interacted with them for an extended period of time. The character notes feel like they were jotted down listening to grumpy grandparents complaining about “millennials” and “snowflakes”, how the modern generation has lost touch with what makes childhood important and tangible.

Oh yes, the film went there.

Spencer Gilpin is a nerdy kid terrified of the outside world, as denoted by his decision to live in video games and to use hand santiser. His mother appears in a single scene, to quickly reassure him that the outside world is a horrifying place and that he is correct to be afraid of it. Bethany Walker is active on social media, using modern technology to share her carefully choreographed life with the world. She is self-absorbed and has little emotional awareness of anybody else. These are not characters, these are think pieces written by middle-aged authors granted generic arcs.

However, getting past these modern trappings, Welcome to the Jungle plays its hand in a very straightforward manner. When the kids are sucked into a video game, they are granted avatars that comment ironically on their personalities. Even without the film’s trailers and publicity, it is easy to link the child actors to their celebrity counterpart simply by following the skewed logic, “which would be the most ironic choice or the most straightforward joke?”

You know, with that body, you can probably live without hair.

Nerdy Spencer gets to be Doctor Smolder Bravestone, played by Dwayne Johnson. Beautiful young girl Bethany finds herself transformed into a middle-aged cartographer played by Jack Black. Wallflower Martha Kaplin becomes short-shorts-wearing action heroine Ruby Roundhouse. Athletic Anthony “Fridge” Johnson becomes diminutive Franklin Finbar, played by Kevin Hart. It’s a very simple gag, and a tough one to sustain across two hours, but it does feel very old-fashioned. It is a very simplistic “don’t judge a book by its cover” moral.

Interestingly, the decision to convert Jumanji from a board game into a video game feels like the most tangibly outdated and old-fashioned decision in the film. After all, board games were somewhat outdated even in the mid-nineties. “Who even plays board games anymore?” asks one character on finding the board game in 1996. While video games have undoubtedly come a long way in the past twenty years, with sandbox logic and total immersion, Welcome to the Jungle feels like it was written by somebody who last played a game in the mid-nineties.

All fired up.

It is interesting to wonder what children raised on Super Mario Sunshine or Uncharted or even earlier games like The Ocarina of Time would make of the video game logic in Welcome to the Jungle. The film plays like very nineties video game, which seems a strange choice for a movie ostensibly about updating the franchise. The game has clearly defined “levels”, the characters have clearly numbered “lives”, the four characters form a team with an inventory.

To be clear, there is something very charming in this. Some of the best gags in the movie riff on the strange tropes of older video games, from the awkward conversation prompts with non-player characters to the fact that beating a familiar level is more about timing and pattern recognition than technique or ingenuity. There are some legitimately well-observed jokes in the film that riff on everything from Donkey Kong Country to Final Fantasy. In particular, the entire premise of the movie is that the characters must “save” the game before quitting, a nice pun.

It takes some real stones to play this game.

However, there is something paradoxical about all this. In updating its premise from a board game to a video game, Welcome to the Jungle is superficial updating the franchise. However, in practical terms, the film feels just as nostalgic as the original. Had the movie been built from the same premise in the mid-nineties, very little would have to change. There would most likely be a little more exposition about the core concepts, but the core beats and structure would be the same. Live Die Repeat feels like a more convincing modern videogame movie, for example.

(This sense of nineties nostalgia is reinforced by the decision to shoot the film in Hawaii. To children who grew up with Jumanji and the films around it, the location shooting will always be associated with Jurassic Park. Indeed, the location work and composition does very little to disguise this association. At one point, the characters face an on-rush of enemy goons in the same place as the iconic dinosaur stampede from the original Jurassic Park. It is an interesting example of the film’s broader cultural nostalgia.)

Hawaii four-oh.

In spite of this, there is a lot in Welcome to the Jungle that demarcates the belated sequel as a modern blockbuster, standing in stark contrast to the original Jumanji film. Most obviously, there is a lot more mythology this time around. Welcome to the Jungle tries to write this off as a joke about the format, with references to “cut scenes” and “back story”, but the truth is that Welcome to the Jungle is a lot more earnest in its world-building than earlier blockbusters, with discussions of “Albino Alligators” and even a very overt reference to one key past character.

More than that, Welcome to the Jungle makes a point to introduce a primary antagonist, because it seems impossible to imagine the primary cast working to defeat the game itself. The original Jumanji did feature the villain Van Pelt, but he was introduced well past the half-way point of the film, and was a clearly a stand-in for another real-world character. In contrast, Jumaji casts Bobby Cannavale as John Hardin, who is given a back story and superpowers. Although Hardin is incredibly generic, the film keeps cutting back to him to showcase how evil he is.

Path of least resistance.

These are structural elements that underscore how the production team have effectively updated Jumanji for the era of the shared universe and the franchise blockbuster, and how storytelling within these sorts of film shave changed in ways that seem quite superficial but nevertheless profound affect the pacing and the plotting of these seemingly familiar stories. To be fair, these are not changed unique to Jumanji. Independence Day: Resurgence did more world-building than its predecessor, while Jurassic World provided clearer antagonistic forces, human and dinosaur.

Welcome to the Jungle is a film that is surprisingly old-fashioned in terms of its core components, in the way that it establishes character and in the way that it thinks of video games. However, the way that it structures these elements is more overtly modern, creating a strange dissonance that never quite settles over the course of the film. There have been far worse nineties revivals in recent memory, with Welcome to the Jungle coasting off a game cast and a strong sense of narrative fundamentals lacking from films like Baywatch.

“Looks like we’re just a little early for the Avatar nostalgia wave.”

At the same time, this intriguing clash between fundamental family movie trappings and modern storytelling expectations remains the most compelling thing about the film.

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