This is something of a cheat, really, since I’ve already written about this film as part of Film 2019, but since then I’ve acquired a double-pack DVD comprising both this and the next film, making it a legitimate performance for easy Sundays, as well as being the perfect film for how I’ve been feeling the past few days.
I’ve still never seen the original Jumanji film, which a work colleague of mine fervently described as being the only Jumanji film, the other(s) didn’t exist as far as she was concerned. Maybe one day, but the wedge her words drove in suggests sufficient difference to make me have reservations. Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is so not my kind of film, it’s a video game movie and I grew out of video games a long time ago. In fact, from what’s on the tin, the only things it’s got to appeal to me are superb, expansive mountain scenery and Karen Gillan in bare midriff, leather shorts and boots.
Yet it’s fun. It’s practically lightweight – ok, so self-centred pretty girl Bethany turns into Jack Black and learns a life-lesson about caring for others – and it’s got that slick, CGI-clever sheen of a Marvel superhero movie, and it couples its action sequences with the kind of bantering wit both by and between its quartet of high school kids in detention turned game show characters. And on that level it’s a clear case of highly professional audience manipulation: make ’em gasp, make ’em scream, make ’em laugh.
But what the film has going for it, and what does make it genuinely funny so many times over is the perfection in which it handles its play-against-type set-up, how it quickly and clearly establishes the essential characteristics of nerd Spencer (Alex Wolff), jock ‘Fridge’ (Ser’Darius Blaine), valley girl Bethany (Madison Iseman) and emo Martha (Morgan Turner) and then, when they are translated into adult avatars when they’re sucked into the game, how those personalities are mismatched to the players and maintained throughout the film.
You’ve got Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson, wrestler turned actor, showing some nifty chops as a scared little nerd, and sending his outer self up pretty beautifully. You’ve got Kevin Hart, short and squeaky, the powerful guy reduced to being the sidekick and spear-carrier to the nerdy guy he’s been trying to drop since seventh grade. You’ve got Jack Black, bearded, be-spectacled, pot-bellied channeling the shallow, vain, unheeding valley girl for whom life is unbearable if she isn’t Instagramming it. And you’ve got Karen Gillan, a knockout dressed in stereotypical knock-out’s skimpy outfit as the enclosed, difficult, disregarding girl who pushes everybody away before they push her and who covers every inch of skin.
It’s their’s and the script’s attention to the clash between their outer and inner selves that makes Welcome to the Jungle such fun. It could so easily have been a mess, with less careful writing, with clumsier, more obvious performances, but everybody sends themselves up with a refreshing lack of ego and a perfect conviction. It’s the same old thing: you have to understand why people love the fantasy of video games in order to get inside them and spoof them to the best effect.
And the film throws in a massive dollop of sentimentality that it gets away with brilliantly, It sets things up early: Spencer and Co. select one each of four game characters but the fifth is already taken. Midway through the quartet meets that fifth character, Alex Vreeke (Nick Jonas), who was sucked into the game in 1996, who is down to one life and who has been in there for twenty years.
Suddenly, the game acquires a much greater purpose than restoring the Eye to the Jaguar, lifting the curse and getting everyone home. It becomes about getting Alex home, to a home that outside is badly dilapidated, occupied by a father whose life has been destroyed by his son’s disappearance. It becomes about something that even Bethany – especially Bethany – recognises as being more important.
The gang win. They get out of there. Four of them return to the school basement and their detention. But there’s no Alex. However, the film is ready to deliver its pay-off without further ado. Walking home, the quartet pass the ‘Freak’ (i.e., Vreeke) House, but it’s no longer grey and offputting. It’s white, it’s festooned with garlands and a car’s just pulling up to visit Grandad. An exciteable little girl, a baby in a carrycot and a son who never disappeared, who went back to when he came from and changed the last twenty years, for the better. Who recognised the four stranger teenagers he’d never seen before in his (real) life, and was stoked to meet them.
Ah yes, a lump rises to the throat. And it did. I can be as sentimental as the next guy, unless the next guy is Bozo Johnson that is, and when I am immersed in the unreal reality of a film, I don’t care if I’m being manipulated, I take the moment and run.
At the very end, the game itself was smashed, by the bowling ball in the First Act (one for you Chekhovians, there). But we knew that it could somehow be repaired, if the film was a big hit. Which it was. As we shall see over the summer.