Jumanji: Welcome To The Jungle is the very definition of a good-natured romp. And if you are as useless at computer games as me, it’s probably the nearest you’ll ever get to genuinely understanding their appeal.
Four kids are headed for detention, and seeing them sitting in a row outside the Principal’s office – the soccer player, the geek, the princess and the loner girl with hair in her eyes – did make me wonder if we were set for Breakfast Club 2.
All they have in common is their school. Their town is your typical American movie town, including the one weird house with the weird old man living there. In this case the Vreeke House, now known as the Freak House, where a video game-obsessed teenage boy disappeared 20 years ago.
Of the four teens, Spencer (Alex Wolff) is clever but geeky, an avid gamer. Bethany (Madison Iseman) is selfie-obsessed, spending an age flicking her hair and positioning coffee cups before taking that perfect just-fell-out-of-bed shot. (I have no problem with teenage girls doing this, it’s famous adult women with their fake no make-up selfies that wind me up.)
Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain), the school football star, has to pass his classes to stay on the team. Spencer has been completing his assignments for him, hoping he and his ex-best friend from childhood can reconnect, but he’s always knocked back as not cool enough.
And the sports-hating quiet one, though not quiet enough to avoid back-chatting her gym teacher to get her detention in the first place, is Martha (Morgan Turner, or Ally Sheedy as I like to call her).
Their detention involves removing staples from two huge crates of magazines, though Bethany does little. “Are you gonna help or are you too pretty” asks Martha sarcastically. “Too pretty” replies Bethany, and I can you tell you now Bethany, that only works til your mid-20s.
Finding what they jokingly call an old style Nintendo, they each pick an avatar: Spencer goes for explorer Dr Smolder Bravestone; Martha for Ruby Roundhouse, the “killer-of-men”; Bethany for Shelly Oberon, a map expert and paleontologist; and Fridge for “Moose” Finbar, zoologist, weapons ace and backpack carrier.
But dragged into the actual jungle game, everyone gets a shock. Ruby (Karen Gillan) isn’t just a killer of men but a crop top and tiny shorts wearing killer of men; Moose, or rather Mouse (Kevin Hart), is short and slow moving; glamorous Shelley (Jack Black) is actually Sheldon, a round, middle-aged man with a beard and, even worse, no phone; and massive Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson) is made of muscles on muscles.
It’s Smolder who, when he isn’t smouldering (“it just happens naturally” he says of his new-found ability to slow-burn with just a flick of his eyes), utilises Spencer’s real life gaming expertise to work out what’s happening to them: from the increasingly difficult levels they have to complete to finish the game, to the three black stripes on their wrists which represent their three lives.
They aren’t alone in Jumanji. Non-playing characters can only say their programmed dialogue, mainly “the fate of Jumanji is in your hands”, as the quartet set off to find a huge jewel that has been stolen from the eye of a giant stone panther. Restore the jewel and Jumanji’s curse will be lifted and, they hope, they can all return home and finish that de-stapling.
They also meet Alex (Nick Jonas), who thinks he’s been there a few months, though his 1990s references – Cindy Crawford, gettin’ jiggy with it – suggest differently. (Not to me though. I still think in purely 1990s terms, and 90s Cindy is still the woman I aspire to be.)
The message is about finding their strengths in the video game because they finally fully believe in their abilities in real life. Or maybe it’s the other way round. And redefining friendships, as they have to rely on each other in ways they never thought possible, and work as a team. (Mostly. Knowing your frenemy has three lives comes in useful when it comes to avenging old slights.)
What follows is an enjoyable adventure that, luckily, doesn’t take itself too seriously, aided by a talented cast that hugely bolsters a breezy script.
There are some missteps. I hate it when society encourages teenage girls to behave one way then laughs at them for being shallow, and real-life Bethany’s character is treated like this. Luckily Black’s portrayal of Bethany as a middle-aged man with a beard isn’t laughing at the girl inside. His performance is surprisingly touching and very funny, laughing with her as she goes for her first pee: “LOOK AT MY PENIS!” s/he shrieks, followed by “It’s so much easier!” when she realises she can do it standing up.
Martha feels so uncomfortable dressed as Ruby, she ties a jacket around her waist. Though while I understand that Ruby’s short, sexy outfit is meant to highlight how women in video games are often portrayed, it does look as if the film wants to have its cake and eat it: stereotypically sexy girl, uncomfortable with being stereotypically sexy. Hollywood is still, overall, so poor at delivering genuine representation; this would have looked better if they’d had two female and two male avatars in Jumanji instead.
Still, there’s a delightful thread of joy-de-vive running bouncily through the whole experience. And it takes an encouragingly long time for the jokes about their transformations, and the differences between their real life selves and their avatars within the game, to wear thin.
Their delight at their new physical and mental powers as they work to complete each game level contrasts with moments of genuine poignancy and growth as the geeks realise that they’ll be capable of bravery even once they’re back in the real world, and the hot Instagram girl realises that she’s actually kind enough and bright enough for people to like her even if they don’t Like her.
Watch the Jumanji: Welcome To The Jungle trailer now: