Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed in this review are solely those of Marlon Wallace and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of WBOC.
Last year, the TV series Black Mirror had an episode called “Striking Vipers,” which could get an Emmy nomination, but it was about two, African-American men who enter a video-game but have what are life-like avatars. They’re avatars are different races and for one a different gender. It was an interesting episode that explored sexuality for the most part. Yet, it seemingly didn’t go far enough in that exploration. As I watched this sequel to Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (2017), I couldn’t help but be reminded of that Black Mirror episode. The premise is basically the same, except the cast is more than just two men. Here, there are about seven people in total who enter a video-game and have life-life avatars. The difference here is that the seven people get trapped and have to find a way out. In Black Mirror, the two men could enter and exit at will with no trouble in that regard.
When it comes to exploring identity, including gender, race or sexuality, this film doesn’t do much of that at all. Because it’s more about an action-adventure plot and moving the characters from one place to the next, the film doesn’t have time to stop and really look at identity. It simply proceeds as a comedy of having actors play against their body-type and ethnicity. In some cases, it’s mainly watching a couple of actors do impersonations that don’t say anything about what it’s like for people to take on other identities or personas. Director and co-writer Jake Kasdan does have a takeaway involving perceptions via social media that could be applied similarly to video-game avatars, but that takeaway is minor compared to what could have been.
Alex Wolff (Hereditary and Patriots Day) stars as Spencer, a college student in New York City. He works at a convenience store to help pay the bills. He has a girlfriend and close friends, but he’s living a rather lonely and depressed life. The reason is because his girlfriend and friends are in different schools or are in different areas. His only access to them is through social media and they seem to be having a great time, more so than him. He’s suffering from a kind of FOMO. It’s less a “fear of missing out” and more a depressed because he’s missing out.
He perhaps thinks that his life isn’t exciting enough to post interesting things on social media unlike his friends and girlfriend. He could be described as having feelings of inadequacy. He does know of a way to add some excitement to his life, or he knows of a way to make himself feel like he’s not inadequate. He finds and puts together the video-game, known as Jumanji, the magic video-game that literally pulls the players into a real-life environment in which they become different people entirely and have to perform certain tasks in order to escape, as well as survive.
Dwayne Johnson (Fast Five and Moana) stars as Bravestone, the person whom Spencer becomes when he enters the video game. Bravestone is Spencer’s avatar. Bravestone is obviously a tall, dark, handsome hero. He’s big and strong, as well as easily attracts the opposite sex. He’s cool and smooth. The comedy in the previous film is watching Bravestone be this big and strong, cool and smooth guy on the outside, but, inside he’s this shy and insecure kid. This time though, Bravestone isn’t Spencer’s avatar. He becomes the avatar for someone else, that someone else is a very elderly man.
Danny DeVito (It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia and Taxi) co-stars as Eddie, the grandfather to Spencer and the elderly man in question. Eddie is a retiree who lives in New Hampshire. In fact, he’s staying with his daughter, Spencer’s mom, for the holidays. He’s a classic kind of curmudgeon who’s mostly upset that he’s not doing what he loves, which was running a restaurant with his long-time partner, Milo, played by Danny Glover (Lethal Weapon and The Color Purple). While Eddie wanted to keep the restaurant, Milo wanted to retire and do more relaxing things. Milo felt he worked long enough and wanted to do stuff for himself, more freely. Eddie wanted to keep working even as a septuagenarian and this caused a rift between the two.
Kasdan’s film explores this rift and this relationship the most as Milo’s avatar in the game is Mouse, played by Kevin Hart (Ride Along and Think Like a Man). Mouse is short in stature, but he’s described as a black, muscular, boy scout. It’s funny to see Hart play against his usual persona or his usual comic style, which is loud and brash, as well as quick-witted. It’s funny to see him play what is Danny Glover’s usual persona, which is more soft and measured, as well as slow and deliberate. The film opens the door to an interesting story line for Milo as Mouse, a story line that’s similar to another episode from Black Mirror.
In the episode titled “San Junipero,” Black Mirror had an elderly black woman who was sick and dying go into what was essentially a video-game simulation, one that looked and felt absolutely real. The elderly woman decided to live in that simulation forever and never leave. Kasdan’s film basically does the same thing with Milo’s character. The film unfortunately doesn’t devote enough time to develop Milo and truly give us more context for him. For example, does Milo have family who will miss him if he inexplicably disappears into a video-game? The Jumanji game literally sucks a person’s physical body into the game and transforms it into the avatar. If Milo stayed in the game, his physical body would be gone, so it seems weird that he could stay in it forever and his family wouldn’t miss him, unless the film is saying he had no other family, but the film never makes that clear.
Instead of focusing on those details, Kasdan instead focuses on crafting exciting and engaging, action scenes. Often, those action scenes revolve around the characters being attacked and chased by large and ravenous animals. Those action scenes are indeed exciting and engaging. The most fun is probably the fight sequence involving Ruby, played by Karen Gillan (Guardians of the Galaxy and Oculus). It was just a nice piece of martial arts choreography. Infused with Gillan’s charm made it just a great moment of exhilaration.
Awkwafina (The Farewell and Crazy Rich Asians) plays Ming, a new avatar for this film who gets to do an impression of Danny DeVito that bests Dwayne Johnson’s. She’s a great injection of freshness into the film, but the use of her underscores an issue that I had not only with this sequel but with the previous installment. It goes back to the fact that this film has the opportunity to explore identity, yet it doesn’t. What you have is a young white man and an old white man both inhabiting the body of an Asian woman, but there’s not much commentary done about that.
Jack Black (Kung Fu Panda and School of Rock) co-stars as Oberon, a short, chubby cartologist who is the avatar for Bethany, another of Spencer’s friends. The previous film did the most exploration of identity with this character. Bethany as Oberon was mostly a recurring gag, but, at one point, she develops feelings for another avatar named Seaplane, played by Nick Jonas (Midway and Goat). In the previous film, it seemed like Seaplane reciprocated the feelings of Bethany as Oberon. This film doesn’t go any further with that idea. If it had, it could have perhaps gone even further than the “Striking Vipers” episode, blurring the lines of homosexuality and heterosexuality, but alas, this film would rather get into flying horses.
Rated PG-13 for adventure action and some language.
Running Time: 2 hrs. and 3 mins.
Available on VOD.