In a very 2017 kind of way, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is simultaneously a sequel to, and a reimagining and callous dismissal of, the 1995 film that first adapted the children’s book of the same name. If there is some clandestine band of rabid “Jumanjers” lying dormant in the outskirts of the most sub subreddit, I’m sure their childhood is ruined.
WttJ unceremoniously acknowledges a board game version of Jumanji—found washed ashore by a runner and brought home to his son in 1996—then quickly magics the game into a video game cartridge. Cut 19 years to the present where a group of high schoolers in detention find the dusty relic, and we’re off to the races. The film’s main conceit, and its biggest strength, has little to do with Jumanji itself, but rather that they are playing a video game. The film follows strict teen-flick stereotypes—there’s the nerd, the jock, the popular girl and the mousy girl—and subverts them with a body-swapping twist when they all choose characters. This usually serves predictable plot points, such as the nerd finding bravery inside the body of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson (who couldn’t), but the four main actors pull off the against-type quirks of their inner characters so well that the illusion is never broken and the joke stays fresh throughout (Jack Black is a scene-stealer).
While each awkward teen struggles to cope with their new bodies and abilities, or lack thereof (the jock “Fridge” has a rough time with Kevin Hart’s diminished stature and his main function as “backpack guy”), they all must survive the surreal elements of the game world: They have a limited number of lives, indicated by three lines tattooed in vanishing ink on their forearms. The people they encounter, as NPCs, have a limited script and often repeat their lines. Only the cartographer can read the map, telling the players where to go and which level they’re on.
The constant referencing of the game’s rules solves one of the biggest disconnects in movies adapted from video games: pretending they’re not video games. The cartoonish action is justified and more fun for it, allowing our heroes to fail (sometimes fatally), and still the stakes remain high as the lines vanish, one by one, from each player’s arm. It’s a novel idea, and it works better than it should thanks to a director and writers with some decent credits to their names. Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle uses its namesake as springboard to make a new type of film with very familiar elements. And it may be the best “video game movie” to date.