Saturday Features

It’s a jungle in there

- OBIE SHRESTHA
The new Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle translates surprisingly well to the present day with a few smart updates and better visuals than its 1995 predecessor—but the film’s greatest triumph is ultimately in its casting

Jan 6, 2018-Of all the old properties that I expected to see resurrected as part of the 80s’ and 90s’ nostalgia that has lately taken popular culture by storm, I can’t say Jumanji was on the list. The 1995 Robin Williams-starrer about a magical board game that acted as a portal to another, wilder dimension–itself based on a 1981 book by Chris Van Allsburg–had had, in my mind, a very era-specific appeal. From the story to the performances to the special effects, there was an innocence there that would be difficult to translate into these more cynical times, where most viewers–including the young ‘uns’—are certainly savvier and more discerning than they were back in the day. But the new Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, directed by Jake Kasdan (Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story and Bad Teacher) manages that transition surprisingly well. The story has been given a few smart updates, and it goes without saying that the visuals are a vast improvement over those in the original. But the film’s greatest triumph is ultimately in its casting—namely that of the four lead actors on whose charms and chemistry it coasts. 

Four high-schoolers belonging to utterly different cliques find themselves in detention together one day. There’s dweeby, nervous Spencer (Alex Wolff); athletic Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain); bookish, PE-averse Martha (Morgan Turner); and self-obsessed popular girl Bethany (Madison Iseman), all of whom have been sentenced—for a variety of misdemeanors—to stay back after class and remove staples from a pile of magazines stored in a musty, unused room in the school. As they reluctantly get started on the assignment, one of them stumbles on an old video game console. Deciding they have time enough for a little diversion, they plug it in and start, taking up different avatars. But, as you might have guessed, this isn’t any ordinary game: it is the dreaded Jumanji, now somehow evolved from a board game to a more modern form, and as always, demanding to be played. 

Before you know it, the four have been pulled inside the game. What’s more, rather than their teenage selves, they are now in the bodies of the adult avatars they chose, and the results are, well, unexpected: Spencer is now bulging out of his clothes as the dashing Dr Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson); Fridge, much to his annoyance, has been cut severely in height and strength as Bravestone’s diminutive sidekick Mouse Finbar (Kevin Hart); Martha now stands on the long and very-exposed legs of the dance-fighting Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan); and poor, poor Bethany is unfortunately occupying the body of an “overweight, middle-aged man!”, namely palaeontologist and cartographer Prof Shelly Oberon (Jack Black). As disorienting as all this might be, they better get used to it, and fast: lives are limited in Jumanji and obstacles aplenty (yes, yes, including stampeding rhinos)—it will require all their individual strengths and not a small amount of teamwork if they are to finish the game before it finishes them.  

While one can’t argue that there is a huge appetite among viewers today for throwbacks to the tone, style, and mood of film and TV fare of some decades ago—as made evident by the popularity of shows like Stranger Things, and the numerous recent remakes/reboots of old touchstones such as Jurassic World, It or Baywatch—it is, however, necessary to be very discriminating in terms of picking out which artifacts deserve to be brought back. Without a convincing rationale for existing, these efforts risk seeming like a forced attempt to join the nostalgia bandwagon, an easy exploitation of the collective millennial yearning for real or imagined “simpler times”. 

To its credit, then, Welcome to the Jungle doesn’t go overboard in pandering to the past—being a sequel allows it some natural distance from the events of the 1995 film, and besides a few spare references here and there to old characters and technology, it largely functions as a standalone, present-time film. Kasdan and fellow writers Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers, Scott Rosenberg, and Jeff Pinkner have also made a few clever tweaks to the premise: while the old Jumanji only alluded to what one could find inside the game via the various elements that spilled out onto the real world, this one takes us straight into the heart of the action. It was also a wise move to ditch the board-game conceit with all its limitations. But while these changes—along with the clear upgrade achieved in special effects—might have helped usher the Jumanji brand into a new era, the story arc itself is still hopelessly dated, one of those generic by-the-numbers action-adventures whose outcome one could guess with some degree of accuracy not too long into the film. 

Fortunately, the shortcomings in overall plot are outweighed by the characters and casting, by far the strongest aspect of Welcome to the Jungle. Sort of a cross between The Breakfast Club and Guardians of the Galaxy, this pulling together of contrasting personalities, while certainly overdone, is far more entertaining than the trailers would have you expect. The main gag in the film—namely, an inversion of American high-school stereotypes—goes a surprisingly long way, fuelled by well-rounded characters and the lively, hilarious banter struck between them. There’s also an element of irony at work, particularly with regards to The Rock’s casting: it’s the audience’s knowledge of his professional exploits as a wrestler that makes his performance here all the more effective, allowing him to both show off and poke fun at his larger-than-life physique—just watch him use his powers of “smoldering intensity,” it’ll get you every time. Matching him is Black, whose portrayal of a prissy-princessy teenager is absolutely spot on. Hart mans his part reliably enough, as does Gillan, though the film’s attempt to justify the latter’s skimpy wardrobe by framing it as a swipe at the objectification of female bodies in the gaming world feels rather flimsy and inadequate.

In any case, the focus on the characters and their dynamics is what allows the film to rise above its below-average plotting. If you’re in the mood for an easy watch and a couple of laughs, head on over to the jungle. 

Published: 06-01-2018 08:19

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