Sunday, December 31, 2017

Jumanji -- Welcome to the Jungle

Jumanji - Welcome to the Jungle (Jake Kasdan 2017) is a fun and inspiring adventure film that does more to combat Donald Trump's form of divisive politics than a hundred strident speeches.  The picture rebukes the notion that a single hero can accomplish much of anything and makes the strongest possible argument for cooperation and self-sacrifice.  The picture is morally and ethically sound in every respect and, therefore, I think pretty much ideal for families with children.  At the heart of divisive politics is a failure of the imagination -- a White man in Texas can't imagine what it would be like to be a Black single mother in south Chicago; a San Francisco Black Lives Matter activist can't imagine what it would be like to the Italian-American wife of Detroit police officer.  When I use the hopeless verb "can't", I refer to a failure of the imagination.  Most of us are sufficiently imaginative to be able to transpose ourselves emotionally, if only for a short time, into an encounter with the plight of another who is different from us.  But this is a faculty that goes unused too often and, with disuse, I think, atrophies.  At the heart of Jumanji is a noble thought experiment:  what if a Jewish High School nerd, afflicted with all manner of neuroses were to inhabit the body of Dwayne Johnson, the Rock?  What if a self-effacing studious girl were to find herself in the flesh of a sexy popular cheerleader?  What if a Black jock famous for his athletic prowess were to become a weak, cowardly Black "everyman"?  And what if a cute blonde bombshell were to find herself embodied in a fat, out-of-shape middle-aged man?  These are the transformations fundamental to the plot in Jumanji - Welcome to the Jungle and the exercise of imagination necessary to suspending disbelief with respect to such metamorphoses, I think, is preparation for the kind of empathy has been grievously lacking in our public discourse.  I recognize that I'm making large claims for a trivial Saturday matinee action-adventure.  But here is my point:  a lot of movies make you feel debased, exploited and stupid -- the recent installment of Star Wars had this effect on me.  The audience at Jumanji walks out of the movie, I think, uplifted, having experienced a narrative that teaches important moral lessons.  And, so, I recommend the film highly.

In 1981, Chris van Allsberg wrote a spooky children's book called Jumanji.  The books was prescient in many ways -- it imagined a board game that sucks its players into its narrative, that is, an interactive game that is ultimately a precursor to the virtual reality featured in state-of-the-art computer games today.  (It's interesting to speculate that children who read -- or had read to them -- Van Allsberg's book and who looked at its eerie high-detail black and white pictures may have grown up to be soft-ware gaming engineers in part due to the influence of that book.)  In 1995, the book was adapted for a film starring Robin Williams -- I recall the movie as being merely adequate.  The 2017 iteration of the story updates the story to refer to modern computer gaming.  The film's premise is that four very widely disparate High School students are assigned detention and, in the course of cleaning out a storage room, hear jungle drums and are, then, sucked into the game.  The first twenty minutes of the movie setting up the situation is a marvel of efficient, and complex, narrative -- the characters of the kids are established and the plot forces them together for detention.  The jock, the Jewish brain, the girl scientist, and the ultra-vain and self-centered cheerleader all find themselves trapped in the jungle and embodied by avatars that are diametrically opposed in most respects to their real identities.  The film, then, establishes a chase narrative, a bit like something from the Raiders of the Lost Ark series -- the characters have to cooperate to restore an emerald gem to the forehead of a huge panther statue in the midst of the jungle.  There is a bad guy -- he spits scorpions at his enemies, plays with a tarantula, and has centipedes creeping and out of his ears.  He is mounted on motorcycle with a horde of henchmen and they pursue the four heroes on their adventure to restore the gem to the idol's brow.  The film has all the standard action tropes:  the jump from a cliff into the deep water of a plunge pool of a great waterfall, the flight through a narrow canyon in a faltering helicopter, and various battles with lions and tigers and hippos and rhinos -- there are also a lot of snakes.  The action is serviceably managed, but each sequence of this sort is similar to something you have seen done demonstrably better in some other movie-- probably in one of the Lost Ark movies directed by Steven Spielberg.  This doesn't matter, nor does it detract from the film because of the power of the movie's uplifting message -- diversity is good, we are best when we are united in a common purpose, and each person brings unique skills and talents to the table.  (The film's deep structure is The Wizard of Oz -- in that movie, we have the same trek through a hostile landscape, four heroes each with a different skill-set and exceptional powers, and a relentless chase by bad guys; in Jumanji, the winged and flying monkeys in black leather are replaced by the bad guys in leather on their motorcycles.  The Wizard of Oz, in turn, is based on folk tales involving a group of heroes, each with one improbable supernatural skill -- an ability to run very fast or to fly or see with telescopic intensity.  The narrative is designed to allow each hero to use his or her superpowers at least once in the story for the common good.)  Jumanji is generally entertaining for its two hour length with non-stop action and some of the film is quite funny.  In one scene, Jack Black inhabited by a vain and beautiful young woman teaches the studious girl, who is now in the body of a sex-bomb, how to vamp and flirt with men.  When we see her put her wiles to use, the girl imitates Jack Black who, in turn, has imitated another sexy girl -- she walks wiggling her ass to the extent that someone watching from afar asks if she's twisted an ankle.  This likeable film is not without faults -- the sex-bomb avatar is said to possess the skill of "Dance Fighting."   We see her "dance fighting" a couple of times and it's disappointing -- she doesn't really dance, she just fights.  Given the size of this film's budget and its aspirations, it seems to me that he fight scenes could have been choreographed as dances and, therefore, would have been much superior to what is shown in the film.  This failing is a small one and doesn't materially detract from the comic charm of the picture. 

1 comment:

  1. A likable and idiotic film. It seems to come with body positivity messages as the heroine in the game is shown to have creases on her stomach and seems to possess different forms of equal affection for both The Rock and Jack Black. Kevin Hart is shown to be not funny.