'Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle' has Jack Black playing a teenage girl and that's about it
“Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” functions as a “legacy-quel” (a term coined to describe the recent trend in movies to release sequels after their original audience has had time to grow up and have little audience members of their own) to Robin Williams's ("The Birdcage") flick released 22 years ago. In this updated version, instead of the titular board game bringing all sorts of jungle creatures into modern-day suburbia, four high schoolers are sucked into a virtual world, given different avatars to control and told that they must save the world in order to return home.
The crux of the film’s marketing was the idea of watching the stars of the movie playing against type in a particularly egregious way. Dwayne Johnson (“The Fate of the Furious”) plays the avatar of a nerd who’s afraid of everything. Kevin Hart (“Central Intelligence”) is the jock who pays Johnson’s “real life” character to do his homework. Jack Black (“Goosebumps”) is every teenage girl stereotype the writers could cram into a single character. The problem isn’t that there are no laughs to be mined from this. The conflict between a person’s outward appearance and who they actually are is some of the oldest joke material in the book. No, the problem is that after the first scene with the avatars, the shtick wears real thin real fast.
After that first scene, it becomes painfully obvious that no one involved, especially the writers, has any idea what to do with “Welcome to the Jungle” beyond repeating those same jokes ad nauseum. By the time Jack Black gets an overlong and embarrassingly extraneous scene in which he is taught by Johnson and Hart how to use his new penis — a sentence that, God help me, I can never unwrite — they’ve graduated from the shallow likeability they showed at first into a groanworthy monotony.
Not only does using this conflict as the cornerstone of the film hurt the comedy, it makes it all but impossible for any of the players to develop. The high schoolers are entirely defined through contrast with their avatars rather than through any growth of their own. Take Johnson’s character, Spencer, for instance. From the very beginning, everything about Spencer is in service to enforcing the idea that he is not a character The Rock would usually play. These characters are usually fearless, so Spencer is afraid of everything. They aren’t usually nerdy and socially awkward, so Spencer is both. There isn’t a single aspect of his personality that can’t adequately be summed up as not "The Rock,” and when a character is defined by what they aren’t as opposed to what they are, that doesn’t make for interesting storytelling. The actors all turn in fine performances, but they aren’t given much to do besides taking what they would ordinarily do and just doing the opposite.
Aside from that, there was a chance for "Welcome to the Jungle" to satirize gaming culture, as winked at by Karen Gillan (“Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2”), pointing out the absurdity of her avatar wearing a halter top in the middle of a jungle. Unfortunately, not only does the script completely abandon this idea after that first aside in favor of action scenes that make the sexualization of Wonder Woman in “Justice League” look subtle by comparison, but most of the movie plays like it was written by a 40-year-old man who hasn't touched a video game since 1996. What little dialogue isn’t taken up by repetitive jokes is filled with clunky exposition about video games that feels like someone opened the Wikipedia page for “video gaming” and just started copying paragraphs.
This lack of self-awareness and dated dialogue might be forgivable, but it’s compounded by the dearth of good humor, and almost any reason to see “Welcome to the Jungle” completely collapses under that weight. The only thing left is the simple nostalgia of seeing the original reimagined — references include a well-intentioned reference to Robin Williams’s character that makes little sense and Bobby Cannavale (“Ant-Man”) chewing scenery in the part originated by Jonathan Hyde ("Titanic") — and that nostalgia, as in all legacy-quels, can only go so far.
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“Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle”
Ann Arbor 20 + IMAX, Goodrich Quality 16
Sony Pictures Entertainment