Jumanji 2017: Jungle 2 Jungle

2017 saw a lot of awful things hit the silver screen. “Justice League” reared its ugly head, “War for the Planet of the Apes” gave us an uninspired conclusion to what was a promising series, “Alien: Covenant” made us question why anyone liked “Alien” in the first place, and we got another “Transformers” sequel. Golly gee.

But in my opinion, one of the worst movies to come out of last year was a film that epitomizes sequel and reboot culture so perfectly that you probably forgot about it.

That movie is “Star Wars: The Last Jedi.”

I mean “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle.” Don’t jokes translate so well in text?

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Mr. Van Allsburg

“Jumanji” was originally a children’s book by Chris Van Allsburg, adapted into a popular 1995 movie starring the late great Robin Williams. The adaptation was about as true to the source material as say, Disney’s “The Jungle Book” adaptation, but it worked and there was a cartoon later that included more elements from the book, so all was forgiven. Suffice it to say, it included enough inspiration from the source material to make this type of story work, while adding its own touches that made it stand on its own two feet. 

That, and for a children’s movie, the original “Jumanji” actually included a fair amount of emotional depth, tackling tough themes such as abandonment and isolation. The plot for the first film can be boiled down to “kids play a magical board game. Main character kid gets trapped in the game for decades, and when he gets out, he needs to find a way to put everything back to normal.” Sounds like a wacky premise, right? That’s because it is, but there’s also a fair amount of conflict and drama to it.

“Jumanji” 1995 largely follows Robin Williams as the protagonist, Alan Parrish, the said main character kid who got sucked into the board game only to be freed decades later. Parrish enters a world 26 years removed from the one he grew up in, and despite having physically aged 26 years, he is still a kid mentally, and the movie spends a decent amount of time slowly following him, revealing information about the film’s world as Parrish discovers it. The audience reacts as Parrish reacts, allowing his realizations to have weight while giving Williams a unique task as an actor to realistically portray how a kid would process finding out i.e. his parents are dead, everyone he knows is old and has moved on, and that he essentially has nothing to go back to. To add to this, the main child actors that accompany Williams throughout the movie (played by Kirsten Dunst and Bradley Pierce) are orphans!

Yeah, “Jumanji” had some pretty heavy themes for what essentially was a wacky board game movie, where the game was trying to kill them.

And then, 22 years later, Sony Pictures gave us a sequel. And it wasn’t good, and arguably unnecessary, though to be fair the 1995 movie left the door open to “Welcome to the Jungle,” by how it ended, with a sequel bait scene. For those of you that don’t know, “Jumanji” 1995 ended with the titular game board washing up on some shore, and that is where the sequel picks up, with one of the kind-of-lead’s dad picking it up on a beach in 1996. I guess it was just sitting there for a year, despite the fact that the last film clearly ended with two people about to discover it.

jumanjiAnd this gets into a large problem with “Welcome to the Jungle,” and a lot of shitty reboots and sequels in general; “Jumanji” 2 wants to benefit from having continuity with the film before it, but is unwilling to put in the work to make sure that continuity has consistency, that beach scene being the first instance of this, albeit very minorly.

“Juamnji” 2 was clearly another movie before it got a greenlight. “Jumanji,” like another Van Allsburg adaption, “Zathura,” is a movie about a sinister board game that our main characters have to beat to survive. “Jumanji” 2 is a fun video game where if you lose all your lives in the game, you die in real life. Basically a “Spy Kids 3-D” rip-off except made ten years later with the “Jumanji” name slapped on it for brand recognition. It shares nothing with the original “Jumanji” concept except it involves a game that either might be dangerous, or is dangerous.

And this creates a jarring tonal shift going from “Jumanji” 1 and 2. “Jumanji” 1 features a board game that has been around since the 1800s (and yes, it was a board game that whole time) that would summon crocodiles, killers plants, spiders, you name it to murder you. It would trap you in its game universe for decades unless you found out to beat it. It didn’t care. “Jumanji” 2, on the other hand, features an ever-evolving kid friendly game that could be a board game, could be a video game, you name it, that will hold the player’s hand and is so easy a bunch of Disney Channel stars could beat it.

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“Jumanji” 1995: Just fun and games. And possibly murder?

Which is essentially the cast they went with. Any of the actors they chose would fit right in with Disney. They even replaced Robin Williams’s character with Nick Jonas, because he was relevant once and remember “Camp Rock?”

To sum it up, “Jumanji” 1 featured a set board game that offered cryptic clues for instruction and arguably killed people in the past. “Jumanji” 2 opens with a tutorial level. Yeah, this totally was written as a “Jumanji” sequel.

Continuity errors aside, not that anyone really cares about those from a “Jumanji” sequel, “Jumanji” 2 functions as an OK movie. It often makes fun stabs at video game tropes that, if you play video games, you might get a chuckle out of, but if you don’t, you’ll have no idea what they’re talking about. It’s shot well, though has no distinguishable visual style of its own and leans perhaps too much on the fact that video games these days are more realistic than stylistic, meaning the film looks more like a well shot 2017 movie than a video game. The performances are OK, though cringe worthy at times, especially when you see 40+ year old actors make jokes about technology, like Instagram, though as a whole the cast is greatly underutilized. Which leads into my next point.

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A diagram from Entertainment Weekly. You know you have too many characters when you need an EW graphic just to explain who’s in your movie.

There are too many characters in this movie. With “Jumanji” 2 being a video game, this allowed the filmmakers to cast two different set of actors, one for the real world, and one for their avatars in the game world. Bear with me, this next section will get confusing, fast.

  1. Our main character, Spencer Gilpin. In the real world, he is played by Alex Wolff, but his avatar in the game is called Smolder Bravestone, played by Dwayne Johnson.
  2. Bethany Walker, an annoying, berating millennial (or I guess Gen Zer?) obsessed with selfie culture and Instagram. Basically a diva, played by Madison Iseman. In the game, her avatar is Sheldon “Shelly” Oberon, played by Jack Black, because comedy.
  3. Anthony “Fridge” Johnson, a troubled football star played by Ser’Darius Blain. His avatar is Franklin “Mouse” Finbar, played by the hilarious Kevin Hart. Get it, because he’s little? A big guy in a little body. Comedy.
  4. Martha Kaply, a shy nerdy girl played by Morgan Turner, whose avatar is the “Lara Croftlike” Ruby Roundhouse, played by Karen Gillan.

And then there’s Nick Jonas, who is played by two other actors in the real world.

Jeeze, that’s a lot to keep straight. But it’s good that I got that fact card out of the way, so you’ll now know what I’m talking about. There chemistry is as such:

Spencer is Fridge’s tutor. Martha has a crush on Spencer. Bethany has no relationship to any of them, but gets roped into this wacky adventure because they all manage to get detention at the same time, where they discover the mysterious “Jumanji” Atari console.

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“Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle:” Because tabletop gaming is dead. At least that’s what the filmmakers thought.

Yeah, no joke, the actual “Jumanji” prop looks like an Atari 2600, but with the graphical capabilities of a Sega Genesis. I’m almost inclined to say that this doesn’t matter, except the film is clearly banking on a good portion of gamers to come in and see it to get its awfully specific video game jokes, like how tutorial levels are a thing and nonplayable characters have repetitive, pre-programed dialogue. Coming up with a fake video game console is not hard! Just get yourself a shiny box and find an off brand Xbox 360 controller, and you’re good.

All this sets up the inciting incident of the piece, which is completely nonsensical. Let me break it down for you:

  1. These misfits get detention together. The premise of the inciting incident scene banks on them all together deciding to stop what they’re doing in detention to play some game that they found.
  2. They are completely unsupervised during detention, and are essentially told that their task is to clean out this room. It doesn’t matter how long it takes them to do it, they’re done when they’re done.
  3. The film sets up that these people do not like each other and clearly do not hang out. The only characters that have any chemistry together are Fridge and Spencer, who at this point are at odds with each other because they got each other into detention (Spencer had an agreement where he did Fridge’s homework, but wasn’t careful about it, so they both got caught). One would think that they’d want to finish up as fast as they could so they could continue on with their lives, not prolong their sentence.
  4. The movie’s reasoning for the “Jumanji” game to change from a board game into a video game is because in an opening scene with Alex Vreeke (Nick Jonas’s character), Vreeke discards the board game on the premise that kids are interested in video games now, they’re interested in video games now (it literally cuts to Vreeke playing a PlayStation 1).The game then transforms into the Atari-looking prop, which catches Vreeke’s attention. We, as the audience, are then expected to believe that over 20 years later, this same prop, which had already been discarded by somebody else, is supposed to catch the attention of teenagers so much that they are willing to make their detentions longer to play it.

Yeah, no, not buying it. And thus the inciting incident comes off as nonsensical, forced, and weird, which is representative of the film as a whole, and it is why “Jumanji” 2017 is the epitome of awfully contrived reboot/sequel culture.

Once in the game, we get serviceable performance from Johnson, Hart, Gillan, and Black, though they are all held back by the premise. Their comedy revolves around the fact that they physically don’t match who is playing them, thus Johnson is played by a nerd, Gillan is played by a nerd, Black is played by a diva, and Hart is played by an athletic football player. Great SNL sketch! But not great material for a two hour movie.

It also forces these veterans to mimic child actors, who, while decent, do not and perhaps will never match the caliber of the actors mimicking them. Dwayne Johnson can’t be Dwayne Johnson. Jack Black can’t be Jack Black. Kevin Hart can’t be Kevin Hart. And Karen Gillan can’t be Karen Gillan (in my opinion, Karen Gillan only works when she has a character to play).

And Nick Jonas does fine. He is in no way a replacement for Robin Williams, but then again, no one really can be. Not a single actor in this cast was even capable of surpassing what he brought to the original “Jumanji,” and that’s not to belittle the actors in this film; I do believe that Williams gave a solid performance, and when I think of his legacy, “Jumanji” is right next to “Hook.” And the shortcomings of his character is moreso in the direction than the actor himself – in fact I’d say you can say that for just about every character. They’re all so one-beat and simplistic; none of them even try to touch on any of the subjects the original did, and this is true even with the gameboard itself. Everything is way too polished and friendly, as is “Jumanji” has a PR gloss painted over it, along with a G rating.

RusselVanPelt
“Jumanji” 2’s villain. I added a photo of him because I forgot what he looked like.

There is a villain, and he’s just about as video-gamey as you can get, and for that, he works, but when I compare him to the hunter in the first movie, there’s no contest. Jonathan Hyde stole the show in “Jumanji” 1 as Van Pelt, and even if we never fully understood why he hated Alan Parrish so much, it was his commitment and psychopathic perseverance that made him stand out. I can’t even remember what the villain looked like in “Jumanji” 2, let alone his name, his motivations, or anything about him other than he was your run-of-the-mill, mustache-twirling video game villain.

And seeing as we brought up Parrish again, supposedly the video game world in “Jumanji” 2 was where Parrish was trapped for over 20 years in “Jumanji” 1, which brings up too many headaches, I’m not even going to try to rationalize about how that would work, because it doesn’t. Where was Parrish’s avatar? It looked pretty much like he was in that game for 20 years as himself, with no special abilities to fend for himself save what he already had.

At the end of the day, the heroes won. There was romance between our main characters. Hurray.

And by the way, they smashed the “Jumanji” Atari console at the end, making it almost impossible to make another “Jumanji” movie. In a way, it’s poetic, and probably reveals the true motivation of this movie; to destroy the “Jumanji” franchise in such a way that there’s no way to keep making movies in it.

… Except it made $960 million off of a $90 million budget. Despite being a lesser film “Jumanji” 2 made more than triple what its predecessor made, effectively giving investors 10X their money back. What a world that we live in, where you can boil a decent property down to its working parts so much so that it’s frustrating and barely functional, but so long as you have a recognizable name and big stars, you can make money hand over fist?

Expect “Jumanji” 3: The iPhone edition, coming to theaters in a couple more years.

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle gets a 3/10

Jumanji (1995) gets a consolatory hug. We know you’re the better movie. Everything is going to be alright.

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