When Spencer Gilpin is called into the principal’s office, he has a pretty good idea why: It’s because he helped a good friend.
OK, that sounds altruistic and bighearted. The truth is, he screwed up. He wrote a paper (or two, or three) for a guy who used to be his good friend back when they were both skinny nobodies living down the street from each other. Since then, Anthony “Fridge” Johnson has grown into a football hero worthy of his nickname and Spencer has, well, pretty much stayed the same stringy nobody that he always was. They rarely even speak anymore—except when Fridge needs a bit of scholastic help.
On this particular day, though, Spencer and his frowning former friend aren’t the only ones heading into the detention soup. There’s also a popular, pretty and completely narcissistic girl named Bethany awaiting the punishment axe. She was sent to the principal for putting selfies and in-class phone conversations above her teacher’s more studious recommendations. And sitting next to her is a too-smart-for-gym-class gal named Martha. She’s a bright individual who, by the way, Spencer has had a slight crush on for a while now.
After getting a little tongue lashing, they’re all sent to a small junk-clogged storage room to do a bit of heavy lifting and recycling as part of their collective penance. “You need to come to grips with who you are and who you want to be,” Principal Bentley says to the four of them. And, of course, cleaning up trash is the perfect way to facilitate that directive.
Little do any of them realize, however, that the principal is being somewhat prophetic. Oh, yes he is. For amid the piles of stuff in that closet, Fridge finds what appears to be a very old-school video game console with a cartridge labeled Jumanji jammed into its game slot.
Now, Spencer is a pretty well-versed video game guy. But he’s never heard of this one. Still, he figures it’ll likely beat ripping apart ancient magazines. So the kids plug the game into an old TV, flip the console on and choose their characters.
With a rain of sparks, some bright flashing lights and the thunder-like rumble of … Are those jungle drums? … all four teens are dematerialized and sucked into the little buzzing console.
But that’s not the most amazing thing.
What’s really incredible is the fact that they all find themselves in a deep, dank jungle. Spencer has somehow been transformed into a hulking, smoldering giant of a man: an archeologist named Dr. Bravestone. Fridge? Well he’s now in the short and diminutive body of Moose Finbar, a zoologist and weapons expert. Martha has become a Lara Croft lookalike named Ruby Roundhouse. But oddest of all is that fact that the gorgeous Bethany is now a tubby cartographer named Sheldon Oberon.
And before you can say, “What just happened!” Bethany/Sheldon gets grabbed by a passing hippo, slammed about and gobbled whole. Only to appear again, falling out of the sky, soon after that seeming demise.
Yup, this Jumanji place is going to take some getting used to.
And, it turns out, a little saving, too.
The teens trapped and transformed inside this video game challenge gradually learn that they must work together, best a villainous bad guy and break a curse affecting the world of Jumanji. And along the way, these disparate adolescents (albeit clothed with decidedly adult avatars) become good friends. And they begin coming to grips with, well, “Who they are and who they want to be.”
Spencer, for example, realizes that his all-controlling fears and phobias are not always rational. Fridge learns some lessons about the value of friendship. Martha concludes that her formerly self-imposed shyness and isolation are quite limiting. And Bethany comes to grips with the fact that her social media selfie-obsessions didn’t really represent what she enjoys most in life. (In fact, at one point Bethany states, “Ever since I lost my phone it feels like my other senses have been heightened.”)
All the teens eventually understand that it takes more than muscles or beauty to make someone into an admirable person: It takes virtues such as trust, compassion and self-sacrifice.
The Jumanji game is imbued with unexplained magic. We first see it as a board game that’s washed up on a beach (a nod to the original Jumanji film from 1996). But then the game magically transforms into a video game and pulls someone magically into its world. Twenty years later it happens again with the story’s heroes.
The video game jungle world the teens play through is all magically controlled as well. In fact, their main quest is to break a curse that beset the land after someone stole a powerful ancient jewel. This jewel gives the thief magical control over the myriad beasts and crawling creatures of the land. We also see bugs and spiders crawling around on him. For instance, a millipede crawls up and into the man’s ear; at another point, he opens his mouth, and a scorpion crawls out.
In addition, each of our heroes is given three “game lives.” Life gauges, represented by tattoos on their arms, decrease in number each time they are killed or lose a life in the game. After each “death” they disappear, and an unharmed version of their avatar regenerates and drops from the sky.
There’s quite a bit of female skin on display when we meet Martha’s new Lara Croft-like avatar. Even she feels uncomfortable with the exposure and chooses to cover up a bit at one point—wrapping a borrowed jacket around her waist. Of course, Spencer’s muscular Dr. Bravestone avatar gets plenty of notice from the women in the group, too. “D–n, that is a man right there,” Bethany/Sheldon drools. But at least the brawny Bravestone keeps his shirt on.
When it comes to Bethany and her male avatar, though, there are lots of jokes, quips and visual gags tossed out concerning her gender-blurring body swap. The tubby male cartographer goes on and on about the new, uh, male appendage that he/she isn’t used to dealing with. That joke is revisited several times.
And he/she also makes numerous gushing comments about the attractive males in their in-game party. When they meet another player named Alex, the guy gives an odd look to the short and stocky Sheldon after the character’s obviously girl-like reactions. Fridge tells Sheldon that the person behind the avatar is actually a very attractive girl. “If you were out there alive, you’d probably hit that,” he insists.
Later, Bethany/Sheldon gives Alex a lingering mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. And after hugging him, other characters make surprised verbal note of Sheldon/Bethany’s clearly aroused (albeit off-camera) physiological response.
As far as Bethany’s real-world persona is concerned, we see her taking selfie shots that strategically expose skin. She states that her boyfriend likes it when she takes pics like that. “It’s the key to our relationship,” she says matter-of-factly. And when she reappears back in the real world, Bethany grabs her own breasts and sighs about how much she’s missed them.
Jokes are made about male genital size. Spencer and Martha kiss in both avatar and real-world form.
Jumanji is staged as an action-adventure game, so there are many thumping, pummeling, shooting and explosive scenes that unfold during our heroes’ jungle trek. A villainous explorer named Van Pelt sends scores of wild beasts after the teens in the game. We see several characters attacked by massive hippos, leaping and slashing jaguars, charging white rhinos and a thundering elephant. Some characters die in these attacks, though the violent deaths are always bloodless, and lives are subsequently regenerated.
The heroes are also set upon by Van Pelt’s motorcycle-riding thugs. These men shoot rifles and missile launchers. Some of them also fall from great heights. Fridge’s character literally blows up at one point.
Spencer and Martha spend several scenes flying into action and pounding various baddies. Martha’s Ruby Roundhouse is quite adept at “dance fighting” as well as leaping into the air and kicking foes in the chest and head. Spencer’s Dr. Bravestone, however, is much more straightforward: He uses duck-and-parry game moves to slam enemies into walls and literally launch them through the ceiling with massive uppercut shots. One man is killed via a scorpion sting to the neck.
Three or four s-words are spit out, as are a few f-word substitutes, such as “frickin’.” “H—” and “a–” both show up more than a dozen times each. And we hear a few uses of “d–n” and “b–ch.” Jesus’ name is misused once and God’s name is misused some 15 times.
One of Alex’s in-game skills is the ability to mix great margaritas. Spencer and Martha try the blended concoctions, but spit them out. Fridge, however, gladly knocks down several glasses of the stuff, getting a little tipsy in the process.
Spencer’s mother reinforces his personal fears about the world around him. “Remember, the world is a terrifying place,” she tells him. There are a few urination jokes in the mix here, too.
When you’re trying to craft a fun movie-house distraction for the family, it’s probably smart to think beyond the typical film formula and come up with something rollicking, wondrous and imagination-filled. So it makes sense that this pic’s moviemakers decided to harken back to a fantasy romp from the ’90s with a recognizable name and comedic pedigree.
Just sprinkle in a handful of contemporary stars, stir in an updated plot twist, whisk briskly, and you’ve got a nice little matinee pudding with just the right amount of sugar and sprinkles, right?
Well, sorta. I mean, there’s broad, believe-in-yourself fun to be had here, but …
The problem is that while trying to craft something for your typical 13-year-old’s enjoyment, the new Jumanji writing team dumbed things down, and sexed things up, a little too much. The nerd-to-video-game-hero body-swap conceit at the core of things is cute. But it offers a limited pool of ideas and giggles. And the writers go back to that shallow jungle watering hole way too often. That’s especially true with Jack Black’s tubby-guy-who’s-really-a-pretty-girl character: He/she continually sashays about with girlish vim and trades a selfie-taking obsession for an obsession with his/her anatomically male parts. (Ew, indeed.)
Add in a lot more foul language than you might expect in a movie built for the kids, and you’ve got a fantasy actioner that’s much less, uh, fantastic than it could have been.
After spending more than two decades touring, directing, writing and producing for Christian theater and radio (most recently for Adventures in Odyssey, which he still contributes to), Bob joined the Plugged In staff to help us focus more heavily on video games. He is also one of our primary movie reviewers.