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Our Christmas Day with “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle”

Jumanji!

Dwayne Johnson on a motorcycle with a flamethrower. Maybe movies do get better than this, but some days they don’t need to.

No one deserves to be left alone on Christmas, least of all a grandmother. When one of our families canceled their Christmas gathering altogether at the last minute, it left one kindly relative in danger of spending all day alone with her dashed hopes and her TV dinners and a 227 marathon. We knew we had to do something. That’s why for the first time in ages we headed to the theater on Christmas Day — gave her some company, some fresh air, and the treat of an all-new movie. Waiting there for us with two hours’ worth of innocuous, family-bonding fun was Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and his happy sidekicks in Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle.

In his wrestling days our man Mr. Johnson famously asked his opponents, “Can you smell what The Rock is cooking?” He may not get into the ring anymore, but we can still smell what he’s cooking. And if there’s one thing The Rock cooks best these days, it’s popcorn. Lots and lots of popcorn. Movies with The Rock in them are like the Charlie Brown Thanksgiving of cinema. You might groan at what’s on the table, but even if you don’t touch it, someone else will appreciate the love and effort he put into that popcorn, and they’re gonna have some and love it.

Short version for the unfamiliar: The original 1995 Jumanji (from Joe Johnston, the director of Captain America: The First Avenger) was a fun family film that I was unable to enjoy for reasons that would require a separate blog entry of their own. This one’s not a reboot but a sequel, tipping a hat more than once to the days of Robin Williams and the magical board game that complicated his life. After a prologue that picks up exactly where the first one left off, we time-jump to the present, where a quartet of mismatched teens who’ve probably never seen The Breakfast Club find themselves in detention and ordered to clean up a backroom full of junk piles whose discarded contents for some reason include an archaic gaming console containing the video game based on the board game. They boot it up and once again reality is rent asunder as Our Heroes are transported into another dimension where their consciousnesses are uploaded into the bodies of funnyman Kevin Hart, funnyman Jack Black, Karen Gillan from Doctor Who and Guardians of the Galaxy, and their obvious leader, the esteemed Mr. Johnson. Together the fretting foursome must navigate old gaming tropes from Point A to B without dying for real, and maybe learn a life lesson or two along the way. As much as they’re loath to admit it, teens do need practical advice.

Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: Before they upconvert into Hollywood stars, the nebbish front-and-center among the four teens is Alex Wolff, who recently played a famous terrorist in Patriots Day. Real-world school staff include Marc Evan Jackson (attorney Trevor Nelson from Parks & Rec) as the principal who delivers what he thinks is The Moral of The Story, and Galaxy Quest‘s Missi Pyle as the gym teacher.

Bobby Cannavale (Officer Stepdad from Ant-Man) is the game’s seething, one-dimensional Final Boss, a cartoonish evil evildoer what does evil for evil because evil. The only other game NPC with more than three lines is Rhys Darby (a.k.a. the toady Charles from A Series of Unforunate Events‘ Miserable Mill) as their friendly tutorial. Later in the game comes a surprise extended visit from former teen heartthrob Nick Jonas.

With fairly mild spoilers that I don’t expect to ruin anyone’s enjoyment, the film’s epilogue includes uncredited cameos from TV’s Tim Matheson and Colin Hanks. Fun trivia: Hanks and Jack Black previously teamed up with Welcome to the Jungle director Jake Kasdan for the comedy Orange County…except here Hanks and Black share no scenes. They were this close to a reunion.

Meaning or EXPLOSIONS? No, we are not going to shout “EXPLOSIOOOOONS!!!” and move on. Like the classic blockbuster films of the good ol’ days, Our Heroes have much to learn. A short speech from Principal Trevor Nelson posits their big 16-bit adventure as an extended group discovery about the importance of self-improvement, about being the best versions of ourselves and determining who we really want to be in the one life we’re given. Anyone who’s hoping this leads to elaborate inquiries into issues of identity on any of today’s hot-button sociological levels may be disappointed because this isn’t that kind of 21st-century American mainstream movie. Their separate paths to The More You Know may consequently seem old-fashioned to some crowds.

Kevin Hart is a selfish jock who learns some humility. Jack Black is a self-absorbed Instagram babe who learns the meaning of empathy and sacrifice, and thankfully eventually stops whining about how miserable life is when you’re trapped in the body of a middle-aged fat guy. (I mean, I won’t say “It gets better”, but shut up anyway.) Karen Gillan is an intellectual loner who learns that physical exercise isn’t stupid, and who will never, ever learn how to flirt like a self-absorbed Instagram babe. And as the weakest one of all endowed with the strongest body of all, The Rock is a hyperallergic geek who needs a little courage, some time away from his foibles, and the realization that muscles don’t make the man. Not even The Rock. No, really, they don’t. The muscles are nice to have, and a useful reward for years of tremendous discipline, but they’re no substitute for wisdom or character, much as other Hollywood productions would charge you to believe otherwise.

Other lessons they pick up along the way:

1. Sometimes we can accomplish more than we think we can if we just try.
2. Yay teamwork!
3. Cheating is bad.
4. Helping someone else cheat is also bad.
5. Talking back to your teacher is punishable regardless of whether it feels really satisfying.
6. Sometimes those who talk back to their teachers are, in fact, 100% in the wrong and don’t know everything.
7. Geeky kids can find love too. (Let me chime in with a first-hand DUH, but still.)
8. The Kevin Hart avatar is preprogrammed with tons of zoology, so kids at home get to learn new facts about hippos, elephants, snakes, and more!

Nitpicking? While the rest of the cast have their highlights, Johnson is first and foremost above all. Despite his panicky teen mind, the film reminds us again and again that The Rock is a magnificent specimen of ultimate male beauty. On the surface it’s self-parody, but some of the flat jokes fall even flatter if you’re not buying in to his 10-ness.

Video game tropes are the target of most of Jungle‘s gags, though many of them assume you’ve never seen video games mocked before. If you haven’t, then it’s probably comedy gold, especially if you somehow avoided seeing all the trailers. Some bits are good for a chuckle — the NPCs who keep repeating the few lines they’re given until the players respond and move on; the constant reuse of the same musical score (in this case, a flourish of ominous jungle drums); the mass-produced lookalike henchmen; the Final Fantasy-style character stat screens writ large with their silly traits. After a while the mockery of all that repetition in itself becomes repetitive.

Otherwise the game world around them is one-note and straightforward. Anyone hoping for intricate Jumanji Cinematic Universe world-building or some kind of rich canon may be disappointed that the entire backstory is “bad man being mean to our land must be stopped”. It’s ostensibly a 1992 video game, and all the primitive design that implies, but it would’ve been cool if the magical video game were actually way more complicated than the console games of the time. Its intro video certainly has far better graphics than anything we saw in Wolfenstein 3-D, which came out that same year, so claiming an “anachronism” defense is disingenuous.

Also, if it were me, I would’ve added a short speech later in the film (I don’t care who delivers it) drawing more blatant parallels between the principal’s “you have one life” speech and the fact that in this world they each have three lives but keep wasting them on stupid mistakes. Was one written but deleted? Seems a glaring oversight that would’ve benefited the kiddie viewers at home.

Parents may cringe a little when the teenage girl inside Jack Black’s body is forced to deal with her temporary man parts. Some light “naughty” humor ensues to ensure Jungle isn’t slapped with a scarlet-letter PG rating. That scene got the biggest laughs from our sold-out Christmas evening crowd, but, y’know, just a heads-up.

So what’s to like? Oboyoboyoboyoboyoboy it’s popcorn film time wheeeeeeeeeeeeeeee. We knew what we were getting into, and that was the whole point.

To their credit, our four main players are among the best at what they do. Gillan is the woman of action who’s at least occasionally not someone else’s tagalong. Black and Hart take turns as jesters getting destroyed by comedy slapstick. In particular, Hart’s timing and delivery are impeccable and basically made much of the movie for me. (Is this a bad time to admit this is the first time I’ve ever seen him in a starring role? Pretty much every time is a bad time to admit that, right?) And box-office superstar Dwayne Johnson swaggers as the Rockiest Rock that ever did Rock…well, once he learns to be as brave as The Rock. Johnson is game to try nearly anything, and clearly has fun poking at his big-hero image as he tries not to cry, is the first to run away from danger every time, and delivers one of the most humiliating awkward-first-kiss moments of the decade.

That star-power four-pack and their wacky hijinks are the real point of Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle. It’s not quite the scathing satire of gaming that we need, nor is it meant to be. It’s a night out for friends, an escape from this dreary year and its horrid climate, a holiday outing for an abandoned loved one who could use some hours of laughter and shared experience.

As video game comedies go, I assume it’s still 100 times better than Pixels. I’ll never know because I’ve seen as many Adam Sandler movies as I have Kevin Hart movies. Well, now I have, anyway. I wouldn’t mind seeing Hart take the lead.

How about those end credits? No, there’s no scene after the Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle end credits, but anyone who sticks around that long is treated to one last listen to that flourish of ominous jungle drums. We also confirm that “the jungle” is mostly Oahu, not the worst place to be cooped up with The Rock for a while.

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About Randall A. Golden
Hoosier since birth, geek since age 6, father at 22, Christian at 30; launched Midlife Crisis Crossover at 39. Full-time service rep; part-time internet contributor; former message board admin; inhabits Twitter as @RandallGolden. Views expressed herein do not necessarily reflect those of any other corporation, being, or party line.

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