Film Review: Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (USA, 2017) looks like a fun videogame, but plays like a cheat

It’s quite amusing that films based on videogames like Assassin’s Creed, Max Payne, Super Mario Bros. and Street Fighter are complete rubbish and yet films that revolve around videogames or reflect the videogame aesthetic are a different story.

With films like David Cronenberg‘s sci-fi body horror film eXistenZ (which is a spiritual followup to Videodrome), Edgar Wright‘s graphic novel film adaptation Scott Pilgrim VS The World, Nick Castle‘s sci-fi adventure The Last Starfighter and others, it is possible to make great films out of such thematic material due to the unlimited possibilities one can create.

As for the original Jumanji film, the film is not a classic as there are plenty of problems with it (the special effects were bad even at that time, the overwhelming sentimentality, the inconsistent production values and others). But at least it had a sense of fun and the performers played it sincere enough that we cared about their fates.

So now we have Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, or as I like to call it, Zoo-manji, and it will be referred to that way throughout the review. With nary a link to the original film, a comedically capable cast and a story that basically transplants the original source material within a videogame aesthetic, there’s a chance that the film might actually be good, despite the bad buzz it carried from the reception of the trailers. So does the film succeed in a fun time or is it time to throw away the dice?

The film starts off with four high school kids (Alex Wolff, Morgan Turner, Ser’Darius Blain and Madison Iseman) being brought to detention due to their character traits (in other words, stereotypes). While they are cleaning the storeroom, they discover an old video game console, with the video cartridge named Jumanji.

As the four reluctantly play the game just to avoid boredom, they are drawn into the game’s jungle setting, literally becoming the adult avatars they chose (Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Karen Gillan and Jack Black). In order to survive, they must follow the rules of the game and complete the quest assigned to them before the world of Jumanji is destroyed, along with their lives. Or something.

Does the film exceed my expectations by providing a fun time and keep up the trend that films revolving around the videogame aesthetic are good? Unfortunately, no, as Zoo-manji is another example of the rubbish blockbuster filled with desperate performances, a story that is parts from better films stitched up terribly and stereotypes that are both annoyingly self-aware and self-sufficient.

Let’s begin with the problems. The first fifteen to twenty minutes of the film are insufferable to get through. We encounter the high school stereotypes that we’ve seen a thousand times before: the nerd, the jock, the princess and the loner, all annoyingly portrayed (no fault to the actors, just the crummy script) and it takes forever to get to the actual plot.

In films like Raw, Thelma and even Spider-Man: Homecoming, the characters break stereotypes and are shown to be actual human beings – even likable (!!), but in Zoo-manji, you just want to react like Milhouse from The Simpsons and cry out “When are they gonna get to the video game?!”

After the torturous set-up, we finally end up in the jungle, where we meet the avatars. First off, I like the four lead actors. I’ve enjoyed many of their works (Johnson in the Fast and Furious films; Hart in About Last Night and Captain Underpants; Gillan in Oculus and the Guardians of the Galaxy films and Black in The School of Rock and Bernie), and despite interviews saying that they’re playing against type, apart from Gillan, they are all doing their usual shtick to an insane level. But unfortunately it’s the script that makes them sink.

Dwayne Johnson has always played against type with his action persona. So much so, that he ends up circling back around again and it ends up being his type. Despite being affable and self-deprecating (especially when smoldering), he’s saddled with an annoying character that makes the most stupid decisions involving a sacrifice to accomplish a task where he could’ve easily done it himself. Not only that, it’s treated as a joke. But hey, The Rock don’t break, it’s the script.

Kevin Hart does his usual loud-mouth shtick that wears off in about five minutes, but here in Zoo-manji, he seems especially desperate to rekindle the chemistry he had with Johnson from Central Intelligence, which makes him so unbearably brash and abrasive (PTSD flashbacks of The Secret Life of Pets) that one would hope someone would push him off a cliff. But hey, I’m not the one that pushed him, it’s the script.

Jack Black does the best he can with the body-swapping character of a woman in a man’s body, but the material he’s given, again, makes him unfunny and annoying. The amount of dick jokes in the film is indicative of the quality of the script. When a film (a family-oriented film, would you believe) does jokes that brings back memories to not Freaky Friday, but the Rob Schneider film, The Hot Chick, your film’s got problems. Or accurately, the script.

And last we have Karen Gillan. She displayed a convincingly tough side in the horror film Oculus and has displayed action chops in the Guardians of the Galaxy films, so I’m not surprised that she can handle the action scenes well. But her interactions with Black also happen to be the best parts of the film, as the two have a nice chemistry together and her physical comedy chops are quite amusing. But that damn script (I hate repeating myself) and the filmmaking let her down.

The scriptwriters go for the meta-approach in the way her avatar is portrayed, which is meant to be a Lara Croft-type. Instead of calling out the portrayal, the filmmakers leer on her so much (which includes a seductive dance known as dance fighting), that it becomes blatantly duplicitous. You think after Wonder Woman, we would get over this but after Zoo-manji and Justice League, apparently not. You can’t have the cake and eat it too!

Speaking of cake, let’s get to the script itself. Apart from the terrible attempts of humour (which involves explosions due to cake consumption because God knows why), the film tries to be clever with the videogame aesthetics applied to a typical adventure plot, but these elements were far better explored in David Cronenberg‘s eXistenz, i.e. non-player characters, extra lives and so on; and don’t add much of anything beyond lame attempts of humour. If anything, with that and the excessive CGI, it makes the film worse since it takes the tension and stakes away.

Say what you want about the original Jumanji film, but at least in there, it had actual stakes and the effects were practical (like the deadly plants and water sets), which makes it much easier to immerse the audience. But in the case of Zoo-manji, it all ends up being a bunch of flashes, bells and whistles that it gradually becomes tedious. It also does not help that some of the green-screen effects look really obvious, especially in the night scenes.

The script also becomes incredibly contrived, like how Johnson’s character has the ability of speed, but only uses it once as a joke. Or how moments in the film are brought up as lazy foreshadowing like the characters’ weaknesses. Or the fact that only one of the lead characters has never played a video game before. Or the basic rules of time travel that tries to hark back to the original film for a cheap moment of sentimentality. Speaking of sentimentality and drama, there’s a tragic(?) moment in the film that was so badly handled (and foreshadowed in a way that’s stated above) that it got the biggest laugh out of me.

And on that note, let’s sum up, because I can’t be bothered to talk about the supporting cast like the amusing Rhys Darby, the non-entity Nick Jonas (thanks to the script) and the “I can’t wait to get on the next Scorsese project” Bobby Cannavale. Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is a lazy, unfunny and undernourished blockbuster that wastes its likable leads with a terrible script and sub-par filmmaking. The film tries to be Indiana Jones meets eXistenZ, but it ends up being Sahara meets Pixels. Game over.

Review Score: TWO STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle releases in Australian cinemas on Boxing Day.