Picture the scene: a half-full cinema screen on a Saturday afternoon, a loud chattering of many teenage boys, a slightly off-putting scent of theatre food. When seated amongst this crowd, painfully hungover and desperate for light relief, there is a sudden blissful realisation of the very low expectations that one can credibly have for a movie such as the Jumanji remake. There is no pressure for this blockbuster to make any kind of impact on the cinematic world, nor is there anticipation for a mind-blowing script, notable acting skills, or clever direction. As a viewer, you’re sat amid people who share the understanding that what they are about to see is not exactly going to be Oscar material. Honestly, at this point, you just want some cool explosions to distract from the throbbing headache that triple vodka caused the night before.
The fact that ‘Jumanji’ manages to pull off two hours of thoroughly enjoyable entertainment, then, is a pleasant surprise. In fact, it’s proof that remakes, sequels and other such “popcorn movies” should be held up to a certain standard, even if that standard relies on their ability to successfully entertain and little else. Every inch of this movie is intended to keep the viewer in a comfortable lull of real life avoidance, and though there are many flaws that cannot be ignored, ultimately, these flaws do not lead to an overall critical failure.
Sticking solidly to the premise of the original, ‘Jumanji’ follows four teenagers, each fitting one high school stereotype: the bookish girl, the nerdy boy, the “dumb” jock, the self-obsessed Instagram teen. They form an unlikely team as they are thrown together during detention after school one evening, where they discover an old game cartridge – the eponymous Jumanji. Seeking a break from their dull assignment, the group each select a character and start the game. Their break soon extends into a full-blown nightmare, however, as they find themselves sucked into the adventure.
As goes in the Jumanji tale, not only do the protagonists find themselves in a terrifying world, but they must also deal with being in a new, adult body, to entertaining results. Bookish Martha finds herself in the half-naked, conventionally attractive frame of Karen Gillan, whilst nerdy Spencer has a literal “glow-up” to a smouldering Dwayne Johnson. Not all are so lucky though – the jock of the group, nicknamed Fridge, is beyond frustrated at his character’s diminutive stature (a larger than life role that Kevin Hart excels within), whilst narcissistic Bethany must re-adjust to the anatomy of an overweight middle-aged man: Jack Black, in a role that is probably the absolute comedic highlight of the film.
The goal is simple – the four must work together to return a sacred jewel to its resting point, thereby breaking the curse and allowing them to escape from the game. It’s a well-trodden adventure story with the added mystical twist, but it works well here; the real value is found in the comedic concept of transforming into a new body, rather than the task itself. The villain at the heart of the story, a creepy type who can control animals and occasionally shows up to make things difficult, is about as memorable as a throwaway mini-boss. Ridiculously easy to defeat and comfortingly bland, there’s no threat to be found in the bad guy here. It’s technically one of the major faults of the film but, simultaneously, this is a fault that is easy to overlook when the rest of the movie is so wholeheartedly fun and self-aware. The main point of the movie, after all, isn’t the challenge which the group must overcome, but the enjoyment of watching the four protagonists adapt to their surroundings.
Peppered with recurring gags, ‘Jumanji’ focuses itself on the ridiculousness of the concept, and plays fully on the stereotypes set up for the characters. What the film lacks in initial character depth, it makes up for in the simplicity of its comedy and the hilarity of the body switch situation – landing high school socialite Bethany in the body of Jack Black, for example, leaves opportunities for many a joke, but also allows that character to begin to break free of her self-absorbed nature.
This may be basic and underwhelming characterisation, but it’s characterisation nonetheless, and does provide for some feel-good scenes revolving around the personal growth of the four teens. Of particular note is the treatment of the two female characters. Though Karen Gillan’s body is predictably fetishized – something brought up by the character herself, in an exclamation concerning the impracticality of her outfit – not all is lost. Martha and Bethany form two opposite ends of a spectrum, as a perfectionist bookworm unconcerned with her looks and an egocentric young woman whose life revolves around social media. The pair begin at odds against each other, sniping at every opportunity in a defensive attempt to cover up their own insecurities. It’s a typical setup for two teenage girls in a film such as this, and at first glance it’s a disappointing approach. Throughout the film, however, Martha and Bethany are given room to grow and bond with each other, realising their similarities, as well as the strength of their differences within a team. It’s a small development, and a slightly shoehorned one, but it’s pleasant to watch even so, especially within a standard blockbuster.
In short, ‘Jumanji’ proves that blockbusters do not have to be entirely mindless in order to be entertaining, and escapist romps are not always to be feared as useless or damaging to the industry. Is the film perfect? Far from it. This is a movie that is aware of its popcorn movie nature, and isn’t at all afraid to revel within it. From the CGI animals to the cheesy one-liners to the constant recurring jokes that don’t always hit the mark, ‘Jumanji’ is the solid, mid-range adventure comedy you should really consider seeing this winter break.