On avatars and star personas, the half-measures of Jumanji's video-game logic, and Dwayne Johnson as the ultimate out-of-body experience
Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle Columbia Pictures
Director: Jake Kasdan
Screenplay: Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers, Scott Rosenberg and Jeff Pinkner, based on the book by Chris Van Allsburg and the 1995 screenplay by Greg Taylor, Jonathan Hensleigh and Jim Strain
Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Karen Gillan, Jack Black, Bobby Cannavale, Alex Wolff, Madison Iseman, Ser'Darius Blain, Morgan Turner, Nick Jonas and Rhys Darby
Rated PG-13 / 1 hour, 59 minutes / 2.39:1
December 20, 2017
(out of four)
We've taken Dwayne Johnson's muscles for granted. Not that he has them. But that he knows what to do with them.
If only for two hours, he doesn't. If only for two hours, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle hits the reset button on Johnson's screen persona, hollowing him out into a vessel that no mortal could possibly know how to operate. At least not without a lot of practice. Immaculate physical absurdity that he is, he makes for a marvelous new toy - part action figure, part flight simulator - for nebbishy teen Spencer (Alex Wolff*), whose greatest excitement in life so far has been getting caught writing a classmate's term papers. When a detention assignment uncovers a dusty old video-game console, Spencer finds himself not only transported into the game but into the superhero body of his chosen avatar.
* Incidentally, his brother Nat Wolff got busted for the same thing earlier this year in Death Note. What I'm saying is, the Wolvves are clearly a bad element who need metaphysical comeuppance to learn their lesson.
So instead of Dwayne Johnson: Confident, World-Beating Action Hero, we get Dwayne Johnson: Guy Who Has No Idea How to Be Dwayne Johnson. Which, turns out, is a great look. His physique often determines - and limits - the way his characters carry themselves, but he's a gifted comic actor who can make that physique work in reverse, too. In this role, he hunches and tip-toes - his unusually uncourageous eyes wide with fear - and approaches physical contact with the cautious reluctance of someone who's never been in a fight.
Of course, after that initial hesitation, Spencer embraces his new body with all the nervy enthusiasm of a Peter Parker discovering what he's suddenly capable of. But Johnson's performance wisely remains consistent - always the normal kid and never the pro. Except for those occasional moments when he involuntarily breaks into a movie-star smolder like a digitally programmed instinct. He can't help it - the avatar is just being true to its name: Smolder Bravestone. (I submit that this is also a much more appropriate name for Dwayne Johnson than "Dwayne Johnson" - or The Rock, or Rocky Maivia - and suggest that he officially change it forthwith.) (Or at least before his presidential run. What, you wouldn't vote for President Smolder Bravestone?)
Needless to say, Smolder's smolder involves prominent application of the eyebrow. It's Johnson's wordlessly versatile version of "Trust me," with perhaps a soupçon of "Hasta la vista, baby" thrown in for good measure.
But watching the way Johnson is used in Jumanji and how naturally he takes to it - the physical comedy stemming explicitly from his unique physical presence; the incongruity of the neuroses he wears so expressively on his face vs. the Herculean sculpture of the body it's attached to - is bittersweet. I lament that more movies haven't been better able to take advantage of such a malleable screen talent. I wish that filmmakers in general were more creative in what they put around him, and what they saw in him, and how they directed him. The hulking, indestructible tough guy who happens to be monumentally charismatic - that guy we know. The timid neurotic with uncomfortably large muscles we see in Jumanji - that's someone a little new.
In that way and others, Welcome to the Jungle is largely on the right track. With a group of ostensible protagonists made up entirely of teenagers, the film uses its name cast as avatars - essentially throwing them all into roles in which their physical appearances are meant to be completely at odds with their actual personalities. The stud football player in the body of the manic, 5-foot-4 Kevin Hart. The shy girl who hates gym class in the body (and unsuitably sexy attire) of Karen Gillan, military badass. And the vain, selfie-obsessed, quintessential popular teen blonde Bethany in the body - thanks to her misinterpretation of a gender-ambiguous character name - of a doughy, sweaty, bespectacled, phone-less Jack Black.
Together, the four find themselves in a world of video-game logic ... sort of. And this is where the film's creative energy butts heads with its limited audacity. Director Jake Kasdan and four credited screenwriters utilize all kinds of video-game conventions to both organize and subvert the plot. Characters are arbitrarily assigned strengths and weaknesses. They each have three (only three?) lives to work with. They cross paths with other characters limited entirely to a single, specific, scripted purpose - like their Jumanji guide (Rhys Darby), whom our heroes stick with long enough to hear all of his dialogue start to loop. They ask him for specific answers, but he just stares ahead wearing a cheerful smile, oblivious to their questions. (He's not programmed for that.) Then he begins his introductory speech all over again. And finally, of course, everyone's arbitrarily assigned strengths are eventually called upon to solve one strategically placed challenge or another. Accomplish a task, advance to the next level. More or less.
But the film never takes its concept far enough. Not even close, really. Kasdan is satisfied being occasionally clever rather than run the risk of his imagination running wild. God forbid. Here and there, the filmmakers find opportunities to exploit or play with the video-game logic, but it's not built into the comedic architecture of the film as a whole. It feels added on ... or maybe just watered down. Either way, the best moments, especially in retrospect, expose a larger missed opportunity.
This kind of movie experience can be one of the most frustrating; you can simultaneously see the half-assed movie it is and, just as clearly, the much better movie it could have been, or wanted to be. A movie with bits and bursts of inspiration is almost worse than one that never got your hopes up in the first place. Large chunks of Jumanji play like a standard lighthearted jungle adventure movie, as if it's forgotten the video-game angle entirely. Where's the sense of daring? Where is the Smolder Bravestone to the film's Alex Wolff?
Welcome to the Jungle is not a parody, per se, but its success or failure is analogous to one. Given its conceit, it needs to know the conventions, the rules, the machinery inside and out. Kasdan should know this. He directed one of the great parodies - one of the great recent comedies in general - with Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, which understood its prestige-biopic conventions (and then some) so thoroughly, its execution seemed as effortless as it was ruthless. In this case, it seems like Jumanji's premise was looked at with fresh eyes, but ... just not looked at for very long. Welcome to the Jungle could have been what The Cabin in the Woods was to teen slasher flicks, or what Hot Fuzz was to cop movies. Instead it seems built from the outside in rather than the inside out.