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Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle mines the wrong kind of gaming nostalgia

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But nothing can stop the boundless charisma of The Rock

Photo by Frank Masi / Sony Pictures Entertainment

In 1995, director Joe Johnston adapted the children’s novel Jumanji, telling the story of a magical board game that could blur the lines between fantasy and reality. Twenty-two years later, it’s apparently time for the seemingly inevitable Hollywood reboot. (Technically, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is a sequel, but when a movie is this intent on relaunching a franchise, the difference is negligible.) Naturally, there are a few new twists to update the story. The board game has become a video game, and the story isn’t about a fantasy world spilling out into our own. Instead, a group of kids get trapped inside a game, with all the gaming tropes, references, and nudge-and-winks that premise suggests.

It’s a fun idea — an opportunity for riffing on gamer culture and gaming addiction, with the self-aware shenanigans that made Wreck-It Ralph such a fun time (and Adam Sandler’s Pixels, not so much). With Dwayne Johnson leading the way, Welcome to the Jungle seems like it has all the right pieces in place to be a fun, forgettable, games-infused coming-of-age story. It mostly gets there, pulling off all the expected story beats without any huge hiccups along the way. But it’s also a missed opportunity — a film about games that doesn’t understand them, with lowest-common-denominator gags in place of inventive humor or sly observations.

A brief prologue sets up the connective tissue between the films: for no apparent reason other than magic, the Jumanji board game at the center of the 1995 movie transforms into a retro gaming console that looks like a mix between an Atari 2600 and the ColecoVision. In the present day, a Breakfast Club-esque collection of teenagers are roped into detention together: there’s Spencer (Alex Wolff), a standard gawky nerd; Fridge (Ser'Darius Blain), the football star; Bethany (Madison Iseman), who spends most of her time on her phone; and Martha (Morgan Turner), filling the Ally Sheedy role as a young woman who feels like she’s a lot more awkward than she actually is. They don’t get along, naturally, and when they discover the mystery console and decide to kill some time, they are suddenly swept into the actual jungle world of Jumanji.

Welcome to the Jungle’s first big gag is how the four misfits appear in the game. Each chooses a different gaming avatar before they’re sucked inside, which leads to some amusing fish-out-of-water hijinks right from the start. The nerdy Spencer has become the excessively charming Johnson. Football star Fridge is now an ineffectual Kevin Hart, whose main abilities are carrying a large backpack and commenting on how short he is. Martha has become a butt-kicking Lara Croft rip-off, played by Karen Gillan, and Bethany is a cartographer played by Jack Black. It’s fodder for plenty of easy jokes — director Jake Kasdan and the four credited writers never seem to tire of having Black’s Bethany marvel at her new genitalia — and while they’re mostly obvious gags, they do give Johnson many opportunities to show off his charisma, with Spencer boasting about it. The film is at its very best when it embraces this meta aspect of Johnson’s onscreen persona, and it’s actually impossible to imagine any other modern actor pulling off the role. Then, when Johnson downshifts into revealing just how authentically insecure Spencer is, he’s able to pull off some real vulnerability as well.

But this is a movie about a bunch of teenagers stuck inside a video game, and Welcome to the Jungle attempts to spin that into a series of humorous shots at gaming conventions. The problem is that the movie has an awfully conventional idea of what game conventions are. The characters discover they each have three lives, which are displayed as small bars tattooed on their forearms. Smacking their chests reveals their strengths and weaknesses, rendered in 8-bit text. One odd sequence setting up the movie’s villain (Bobby Cannavale, hamming it up as much as possible) is used as an opportunity for Spencer to explain what a cut-scene is, as if that’s some hyper-obscure piece of geek knowledge. It’s almost as if the creators of the film think gaming is permanently stuck in the mid-‘90s, which turns the references into a series of out-of-touch dad jokes.

Photo by Frank Masi / Sony Pictures Entertainment

In fairness, the central conceit is that the Jumanji game is an old-school console, so the movie’s tropes do align with the gear’s apparent age. But that may not have been the smartest choice. The nostalgia factor quickly wears off, and then the gaming humor just becomes a generic framework for typical action-adventure sequences. Modern gaming is diverse enough to provide plenty of worthwhile story fodder, built around virtual reality, true open-sandbox titles, modern adventure games, or third-person action franchises that arguably do cinematic-style storytelling better than some blockbusters. If anything, the storyline of Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle would probably have been better told as a game in the first place. At least in that scenario, the retro elements would have felt like more of a calculated choice.

There’s also the issue of Gillan’s character. In the real world, Martha is a smart teenager who gets in trouble for frankly speaking her mind. Inside the game, however, she comes across as utterly awkward, without the intelligence or agency she demonstrated outside it. Her arc is built around learning to accept that she’s attractive, which plays out literally, as Jack Black’s Bethany teaches her how to flirt and act seductive to distract some bodyguards. At first, it’s amusing to watch Gillan play the scenes as physical comedy. And then it sinks in that this is a teenaged girl who’s being taught that her great untapped potential is whipping her hair around to turn men on. The movie does course-correct slightly — Martha ultimately becomes a formidable action foe — but even then, she’s good at “dance fighting,” which is as weird and out-of-left-field as it sounds. Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is a coming-of-age story, and other characters also learn to be comfortable with different aspects of themselves. But a 2017 film adopting the iconography of a character as historically problematic as Lara Croft should offer more than the surface-level shrug of LOL, that’s just how games were back then!

Welcome to the Jungle is a diversionary piece of entertainment, so eager to please that it’s able to get in and out without leaving either a positive or negative impression. It has eom appeal for fans of The Rock, and audiences who grew up on the original film and ‘90s gaming. But it’s hard to imagine this succeeding as a franchise relaunch, given that it’s already struggling to find relevant things to say about its subject. Culturally, we may be slowly transitioning from ‘80s nostalgia to the ‘90s, but despite its strong points, nothing in Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle feels as if it’s seizing a cultural moment, or making a strong case for itself. Perhaps it can serve as a sort of time capsule. Like the actual Jumanji game, the film may just hang around for 20 years, at which point audiences can revisit it, take in what it does right, look at what it does wrong, and wonder why we were so obsessed with the past in the first place.