Every so often a film comes along that beats all expectations at the box office. Film commentators then race to come up with reasons for its runaway success. They tried to do that for Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, but generally came up short. After all this is a film that initially people thought would be lucky to clear $200-$300 million worldwide at the box office, but which ended up with $900 million+ and is now the highest grossing film Sony Pictures has ever made.
Is it down to the box office power of The Rock? Was it because there wasn’t much family film competition at the time it was release? Did box office watchers underestimate the love people had for the 1995 Robin Williams Jumanji movie, especially as many of those that grew up with that film now have kids of their own?
Having watched the film, I still have no idea quite why it became such an enormous hit. It’s a fun film that’s better written and directed than most thought it was going to be, but even so it’s difficult to see why it was such a box office titan, out-grossing the likes of Justice League and Thor: Ragnarok.
Although billed as a continuation from the earlier Jumanji movie, it’s essentially a straight up reboot with a few respectful nods to the original. The plot follows a group of mismatched teenagers – arrogant jock Fridge, prissy image-obsessed Bethany, misfit unconfident Martha and the nerdy Spencer – who in true Breakfast Club style end up getting detention together. During that detention they come across an old video-game from the 1990s, Jumanji, which turns out to be more realistic than expected when they get sucked into the game.
At this point the film swaps from Breakfast Club to two other 1980s stalwart genres, a Romancing The Stone-type action adventure and a Big-style body-swap comedy. Inside the game the teens all get new bodies/payable characters, so the weak and nerdy Spencer becomes a muscle-bound hero (Dwayne Johnson), jock Fridge turns lackey as the guy who carries the hero’s equipment (Kevin Hart), wallflower Martha morphs into the sexy confident baddass (Karen Gillan) while the cheerleader gets the biggest shock of all when she ends up as a tubby, male palaeontologist (Jack Black).
As if dealing with new bodies wasn’t enough to be going on with, the group discovers that if they ever want to get back to the real world they need to complete the game. Unsurprisingly that isn’t going to be simple, with plenty of perils to deal with from killer rhinos to an evil villain and his henchmen. They also discover that as this is a videogame they only get three lives, and after that there’s no coming back.
It’s then a case of getting through the ‘levels’, learning important lessons about themselves and recruiting a Jonas Brother, or at least Nick Jonas’ character, who’s been stuck in the game for decades but thinks he’s only been there a few months.
It’s a fun adventure that gallops along and even at two-hours doesn’t feel like it’s dragging or outstaying its welcome. The cast certainly helps, with the chemistry between the main quartet working extremely well. It could easily have become an ego fest, but like their characters Gillan, Hart, Johnson and Black seem well aware that it’s only by working together that they’ll make the best of the things.
If you thought I was stretching things by relating everything to 1980s genres, I’m really not. Although they’re supposedly playing a 1990s game, in other respects this is a movie that takes its cues from the decade before that. That’s not least in how, despite being a family-friendly movie, it isn’t afraid to get a bit intense at times in ways that are reminiscent of how scary a lot of 80s ‘kids’ movies are (but which we seem to forget).
Much more modern though is its take on gender and sexuality. Although it inevitably has to have a bit of fun with the fact Jack Black’s character is a teenage girl who’s now got a penis, what’s more remarkable about how this gender swap is handled is how little commented on it is. As with the other characters, the new body is a way to get her to think about things in a different way, but there’s none of the gender-hysteria and snide misogynistic or unnecessarily macho jokes that would have gone along with this sort of gender-swap if it had been done a few years ago.
That leads to a moment of semi romance between what physically is two guys but internally is a guy and a girl. Again, a few years ago Hollywood wouldn’t have been able to resist turning the whole thing into a joke or getting the male inside-and-out character to immediately reassert his heterosexuality and point out he’s only interested when she turns back into a hot, teenage girl, but here it’s just allowed to sit, virtually uncommented on.
In its quietness and unshowy way it’s a beautifully forward-thinking way of handling gender and sexuality – so that despite all the issues you could make a fuss about, ultimately it’s just about people irrespective of what body they’re in. Without mentioning it or even having a Beauty & the Beast style ‘gay moment’, Jumanji: Welcome To The Jungle is perhaps the most radical of 2017’s Hollywood family films when it comes to sexuality and gender. And it does that just by having these ideas and possibilities floating through its DNA but not getting hysterical about them or feeling the need to either deny them or make a giant fuss about them. The result is that most older people probably wouldn’t even think about it, while for younger people it will fit well with their more fluid way of thinking about things.
Even the fact Karen Gillan’s is wearing a much talked about sexy, skimpy outfit while the men have more sensible attire makes logical sense within the movie and certainly isn’t used just for titillation.
The movie looks and sounds good on Blu-ray with a nice, sharp picture and a particularly good surround mix. There are also some okay special features which do feel a little too much like advertising for the movie at time, but are still worth a look after the move itself is over.
Overall Verdict: Who knows why it became such a box office behemoth, but Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is a fun 80s-style action-adventure with a nicely understated and smart attitude to gender and sexuality.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac
‘Jumanji Jumanji’ Nick Jonas & Jack Black Music Video
‘Journey Through The Jungle: The Making Of Jumanji’ Featurette
‘Meet The Players: A Heroic Cast’ Featurette
‘Attack Of The Rhinos!’ Featurette
‘Surviving The Jungle: Spectacular Stunts’ Featurette
‘Book To Board Game To Big Screen & Beyond’ Featurette