Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is not quite a reboot and not quite a sequel, but it is an absolute delight.
In the year 1996, the original Jumanji game is found in the sand and bequeathed to a typical teenager. He doesn’t care about board games; it’s the ’90s, and video games are what’s fly! Jumanji, almost petulantly, converts itself into an Atari cartridge overnight. When Typical Teen starts to play, he gets sucked into the game, just like Alan Parrish did all those years ago.
Now in 2017, four teens find the old console and Jumanji cartridge while in detention together. They are a sampling of tropes; the shallow hot girl Bethany, the self-conscious loner Martha, the popular jock Fridge, and the unathletic nerd Spencer. They each select a character to play, assuming who they pick won’t matter much. Only these characters are much more than avatars – the kids literally become them when sucked into the video game! Now they’re in a race to break the curse on Jumanji and return to their real bodies before their lives run out.
Jumanji literally turning itself into a video game sets the tone for a movie that takes itself exactly as seriously as it must to deliver nonstop laughs to the audience. The heart of Jumanji’s humor is its bodyswap antics. Each teenager ends up in a body that is of course a subversion of who they “really are.” The nerd becomes Dwayne Johnson, continuously enthralled with his new muscles and smolder ability. The jock becomes Kevin Hart, losing two feet of himself in the process. The loner becomes Karen Gillan, an impractically dressed Lara Croft-type who can roundhouse kick a man off a motorcycle without mussing her hairdo. The hot girl becomes Jack Black, and he’s, well – “A middle-aged overweight man.”
It was the last bodyswap that had me clenching in my seat with fear of how it would be handled. And, look, I’m not going to claim Jumanji is a paragon of a trans-friendly narrative, because that’s ridiculous. But the fact is that Jack Black played a female character, and there was never a point where her actual identity was dismissed or disrespected. Yes, there were some (hilarious) moments where Bethany is figuring out how her penis works, or teaching Martha how to flirt – but they were no different than Fridge coping with his newly reduced stature or Spencer realizing just how hard he can punch. And aside from two initial comments on her new weight class, fatphobia is almost nonexistent in the rest of the narrative.
I am still miffed that they couldn’t bother to cast a woman of color, but it’s heartening to see two men of color in the leading cast, one of whom gets to utter the line “Am I still black?!” in sheer terror that he might not be. There was no real queer rep unless you include Bethany-as-Jack Black flirting with men (which I don’t). They could have easily pit the two women of Jumanji against each other, and initially, they are set up that way – but soon into the movie, they swap life advice, and settle into real friendship not long after that.
Another highlight of Jumanji is the video game jokes. Rhys Darby plays one of several NPCs, who can only speak in their specific scripts. Each character has an official list of strengths and weaknesses – the latter of which includes venom, endurance, and cake. It is Spencer’s gaming prowess that allows them to level up and move toward their goal, and the sequence where he mutters his moves as he smashes through baddies is worth the price of admission by itself.
Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is the type of movie I feel like we don’t see enough of anymore. It’s not clever, or gritty, or a series of loosely connected set-ups to pay off big GOTCHA! moments – it’s just an all-around solid two hours of entertainment. You know that eventually, each of these characters are all going to lose at least two of their three lives. You know that they are going to learn a lesson about who they “really are” and grow closer together before the movie ends. In the meantime, you can belly laugh at the Rock behaving like a twelve-year-old dweeb.
Author: K-K Bracken
K-K Bracken grew up overseas and in the Washington, DC area, went to the Ohio State University to get her BA in English, and has been in Columbus, Ohio ever since. She is currently querying her first novel ORCHESTRATION under the name Bracken Beveridge. She is the founder and organizer for the first Steven Universe exclusive fan convention, Beach City Con.
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