It is unconscionable that as late as 2017, the United States has taken precisely zero substantive steps toward the prevention of Jumanji crises. These have come steadily, every couple of decades, since the 1981 publication of Chris Van Allsburg’s picture book, which warned — in glorious gray-toned, frozen-time illustrations that echo Pierre Roy in their domestic surrealism and anticipate Pixar in their plasticity — of the dangers of a vintage board game that could set rhinos and lions loose in your home. Then came the 1995 film, in which that game unleashes a zoo’s worth of jungle beasts to stampede through a mansion’s library and out into a cozy New Hampshire village, destroying books and lives and property values. And now, in 2017, the clamorous Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle reports that the terror has gone digital, no longer bound to last century’s game boards and dice rolls. As crowds gather this holiday season to behold the harrowing of yet another batch of young people at the paws (and tusks) of rampant wildlife, I have to ask: How many more lives and homes must this game destroy before we see some common-sense regulation?
If Jumanji were real, of course, and laying waste to our mansions and young people, the U.S. wouldn’t do jack about it. Politicians and media figures would make it a wedge lifestyle issue, insisting that coastal Catan-loving elites shouldn’t tell Real America what it can and can’t play. 4channers and Gamergaters would dox any woman who dared publicly denounce getting pelican-pecked or hippo-stomped. The president would squeeze out a tweet defending “our beautiful gaming heritage” while Proud Boy deplorables would search their attics and basements for the jungle-board game hell-boxes they’ll insist can only be taken from their cold, dead hands. Donald Trump Jr. would track down a copy just for the chance to shoot some lions. In short, we’re a nation that would be too dumb to ban a game that sics rhinoceroses on children, so, of course, it makes sense that we’re also a nation where it’s profitable to occasionally pump out a big dumb Jumanji movie.
The new one is bigger and dumber than the previous one — a feat, considering the relentless clatter of the 1995 iteration, which had as much to do with the look and feel of its source material as The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies did with the writing of J.R.R. Tolkien. Jumanji 2017 is inspired not by Van Allsburg’s book, but by Jumanji ’95. This time, the kids-to-be-harrowed — a squad of bickering, single-trait high schoolers — turn their noses up at the very idea of playing a board game. Eagerly synergistic, Jumanji obliges, somehow transmuting itself into a form they will find more appealing: a 16-bit video game cartridge. As in It, the source material’s nostalgic touchstones have been chucked out in favor of more recent ones, a cycle that will no doubt find the young folks of Jumanji 2035 discovering an iPhone 6 loaded up with a mysterious Albino Rhino Go! app.
Unable to resist retro-game tech, our bored heroes thunk this new-old Jumanji into a vintage console, select the characters they wish to play, and then, ka-blammo, all get sucked into the game itself — and into the bodies of their in-game avatars. The freshest element here is body-swap comedy, which finds a high school schlemiel (Alex Wolff) inhabiting the man-mountain that is Dwayne Johnson, a selfie-obsessed popular girl (Madison Iseman) mired in the form of Jack Black, and a cocksure football king (Ser’Darius Blain) who gets stuck as Kevin Hart. Johnson gets to yammer antsily and express doubt about his abilities, which is good for a couple of laughs. Black, pitching his voice high and complaining about being fat and middle-aged, attempts to find the inner-life-of-a-blonde cliché. Expect much spirited talk about penises: Hart’s celebrates his; Black’s teen is creeped out by hers but then thrilled at its convenience. The material is often weak, but the stars earn their paychecks.
A final teen, a bright but awkward young woman (Morgan Jeanette Turner), gets embodied by Karen Gillan, whose short shorts and midriff-baring T-shirt are flimsily justified by the filmmakers — Jake Kasdan and a boatload of credited writers — as satire. Gillan, after all, is playing a Nineties video-game heroine. Like Johnson, she plays up a teen’s delight and discomfort in inhabiting a powerful, pixel-perfect adult body, and the film’s funniest scene involves this uncertain kid trying to learn to pilot that body alluringly. Coached by Black’s character, the young woman inside Gillan has to try to do all the flirty things that supposedly distract men — toss her hair, suck on her lips, laugh at nothing — and Gillan spazzes mightily, playing the moment like the funniest fifteen-year-old you’ve ever met parodying pageant queens at a slumber party.
Oh, and Nick Jonas shows up.
You might note that that has nothing to do with the Jumanji basics of stampedes and dice rolls. (The Last Jedi wins this holiday season’s animals-run-amok sweepstakes.) This movie insists, on occasion, that it’s satirizing the conventions of video games, and there’s an occasional joke about having a set number of lives, or nonplayer characters who endlessly repeat their two voice-acted lines. But the filmmakers don’t commit to the bit. The actual adventure that the teens must guide their adult movie-star bodies through has nothing to do with the logic or mechanics of games from the Nineties or today. Rather than using platform-jumping, indiscriminate slaughter, and the slow accumulation of skills and weapon upgrades, the players succeed by learning to believe in themselves and to trust one another. These are standard-issue screenplay ideas with nothing to do with video games or Van Allsburg. Rather than wild, the jungle here is about team-building, friend-making, and occasional action scenes whose gist you may get from the blur of movement. To describe it for another sentence would be to waste your time and mine.
Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle
Directed by Jake Kasdan
Opens December 20