What Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle Could Learn from a ’90s Fantasy Novel

I can best sum up Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle by saying that I could have read the Wikipedia summary and not have missed any important beats. There are a couple of funny moments from the core foursome (Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Karen Gillan, Jack Black) embodying archetypal teens inhabiting stereotypical video game characters, and a few begrudging callbacks to the 1995 film, but make no mistake: This movie is not worth a roll of the dice. I can’t really call it a sequel because most sequels at least pretend to care about the world of their predecessors; nor is it a reboot, since it’s not retelling the original story in a fresh way.

Similarly, the movie wobbles between acknowledging Jumanji at all and satirizing video games, without ever landing on a side. In fact, the more fitting spiritual sequel to Jumanji is User Unfriendly, Vivian Vande Velde’s 1991 novel combining virtual reality and Dungeons & Dragons.

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle movie review User Unfriendly Vivian Vande VeldeVande Velde’s little-known tale follows teenage Arvin and his friends (and his mom), who have jacked into Rasmussem, Inc.’s VR fantasy game to play out a D&D-esque campaign. Their only directive: Find Rasmussem—which could be a person, place, or thing, depending on what iteration of the game you’re playing. The fact that Arvin’s friend Shelton has hacked them into a pirated version of the game is initially only a worry related to whether their directive will translate to the bootleg version… until glitches start breaking up the fabric of their fantasy world, and they discover that they can’t unplug until they complete their quest.

As a kid who didn’t play video games beyond some Tetris and Super Smash Bros., and preferred fantasy novels to D&D campaigns, I found this mashup premise fascinating. It doesn’t entirely hold up on later reads, as it was written for both the intended age group (10 and up) and the time, with explanations of REM and aneurysms, plus outdated technology—not to mention the lol-worthy covers. However, the story possesses an earnest cheesiness matched by the tone of Jumanji. There was something so awe-inspiring about transplanting jungle animals into the suburbs: humans being faced with the overwhelming power of nature, completely out of their element; participating in a game made of such pure evil that every move was a misstep, every roll a trap.

Which is why the premise of Welcome to the Jungle’s video-game world is seriously flawed: The players must return the green gem of Jumanji (which vaguely resembles the verse-spouting crystal ball of the original game) to its rightful place, in order to save the land of Jumanji from the curse that has befallen it.

Why would anyone want to save Jumanji? Jumanji is nightmare fodder. Jumanji is deviously creative torture. Jumanji should be burned in a dumpster fire.

That’s the first mistake in Welcome the Jungle. Here’s what else it could have learned, from both its supposed predecessor and from User Unfriendly.

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle movie review User Unfriendly Vivian Vande Velde

Acknowledge your world’s mythology. I refuse to believe that a herd of rhinos stampeding through a New Hampshire town and a crazed hunter racing through a shopping mall with a rifle like it’s his own personal safari in 1995 never made it into urban legend lore in 1996 (where the opening scene of Welcome to the Jungle is set), or that a clunky board game that sucked people into it didn’t surface in creepypasta in 2017 (where the rest of the movie takes place). Yes, winning the game in Jumanji reverts its players to an alternate timeline where the game never screwed up their lives, but they still retain all of their memories of the experience; what’s to say that other people who had been terrorized by the animals wouldn’t possess the same collective memory and pass it on?

User Unfriendly, the first in a series, sparingly but effectively constructs a framework around the Rasmussem Corporation and its obsession over profit translating into its incredibly dangerous video games. At the very least, Welcome to the Jungle could have had one of the four kids connect the disappearance of Alex Vreeke (the Alan Parrish stand-in) in 1996 to that creepy game they heard about on the r/nosleep subreddit, instead of saying, “What’s this Ju-MAN-ji game?”

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle movie review User Unfriendly Vivian Vande Velde

More dimension to the real-world players. Welcome to the Jungle’s humor coasts entirely on the fact of each of the four Jumanji video game characters act as a one-dimensional foil of the similarly one-note teenagers who randomly choose them: Nerdy Spencer can lose himself in the mountainous persona of Dr. Smolder Bravestone (Johnson), named for one of his powers. In Franklin “Moose” Finbar (Hart), football player “Fridge” loses two feet in height and all of his athletic ability, and is reduced to Spencer’s sidekick. Awkward but brilliant Martha is stuck in the Lara Croft knockoff body of Ruby Roundhouse (Gillan). And selfie-obsessed Bethany becomes the ugliest avatar she could ever imagine, portly middle-aged Dr. Shelly Oberon (Black).

Likening these four teenagers, who play the vintage-looking Jumanji game as a distraction from detention, to the Breakfast Club is an insult to the Breakfast Club. Their singular traits, and the ways in which their avatars represent the exact reverse, read like shoddily-thrown-together D&D characters. There are only so many ways that Hart can screech about being the metaphorical football kicked around, and he’s used them up on funnier movies (like in his and Johnson’s buddy comedy Central Intelligence). Black, bless him, is fairly amusing as a mincing teenage girl, and there’s a flicker of pathos as Bethany learns to focus on something other than herself, but that gets tired quickly. There is some merit to watching Spencer and Martha self-consciously embrace their beautiful bodies and the incredible abilities they afford, only to agonize over if the other won’t prefer their real-world selves once they get out of the game. But that’s only a moment in a movie dominated by mostly mindless and unsatisfying action sequences.

Here, the humor relies on knowing exactly who inhabits each avatar. Where User Unfriendly succeeds is that Arvin spends most of the book trying to discern which of his friends has chosen which character: one guy has, puzzlingly, chosen a Native American warrior; the lovey-dovey teen couple are clearly Robin Hood and Maid Marian, though he gets the genders wrong; the girl who love-hates him plays an elf, as does he, but she gets the opportunity to beat him up whenever she wants. Most interesting are the inclusion of Arvin’s mother, who gets cast as a sort of wench, to his utter humiliation; and Shelton, the aforementioned hacker, who regularly saves the group’s collective asses as an all-powerful wizard—but is revealed at the end to have cerebral palsy, confined to a wheelchair and reliant on voice-activated software. Most of these reveals happen in the latter half of the book, allowing the reader, like Arvin, to make their own guesses.

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle movie review User Unfriendly Vivian Vande Velde

Play to the video-game setting. As they’re already playing a pirated version of the Rasmussem game, Arvin and his friends have no problem artificially inflating their stats—though those upgrades, including a glowing sword, come back to bite them in the ass. But in Jumanji, Spencer and his friends’ character stats, like their appearances, just make for one-note gags: Cake makes Moose explode, for some inexplicable reason, while Ruby Roundhouse’s talent is dance-fighting—which, to be fair, leads to one of the movie’s few hilarious sequences, two fight scenes set to “Baby I Love Your Way.”

But if the adventurers are in a video game, why not have them gain XP and level up? Or obtain weapons upgrades? Or do anything but worry about their three lives (after which it’s “you die in the game, you die for real”)? If Welcome to the Jungle was so committed to being a commentary on video games, there were a lot tropes the screenwriters could have played with.

Make the in-game characters more ominous. To wit: A game is nothing without its non-player characters, or NPCs. Welcome to the Jungle misses the opportunity to comment on the supporting characters that make up the fabric of this quest-based game, instead retreading the same joke about NPCs reciting their scripted lines over and over without it actually going anywhere. By contrast, User Unfriendly explores what happens when characters confront something they haven’t been programmed to deal with: when one of the characters mutters about it being “just a stupid game,” NPC Simon Abbott cocks his head and asks, “Game?” while NPC Brynhild shudders. They continue in that loop, over and over: “Game?” Shudder. “Game?” Shudder. Eventually, the players have to leave the NPCs behind, caught in an eternal loop. It’s one of the most chilling moments I’ve ever read in a fantasy novel.

The character meant to inspire the most fear in Welcome to the Jungle is Russel Van Pelt (Bobby Cannavale in a headscratcher of a role), an explorer who stole the Jumanji MacGuffin and, under its curse, was transformed into a one-eyed villain who controls every animal, from the jaguars to the scorpions. Naming him Van Pelt was a bone thrown to fans of the original movie, but he completely lacks the menace of that hunter—not least because what made the original Van Pelt most disturbing was that he was played by the same actor who played Alan Parrish’s father. Imagine being hunted through the jungle for 25 years by a man with the face of your father who wanted to send you away to boarding school after you messed up his factory. It’s dark little moments like those that make Jumanji memorable.

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle movie review User Unfriendly Vivian Vande Velde

Establish actual real-world consequences. In the original movie, the game kept conjuring up new jungle horrors and dumping them in the real world: Elephants stampeding in traffic. A lion roaring from the den. A boy gets turned into a freaking monkey just for cheating. This board game doesn’t mess around.

But because Welcome to the Jungle is set entirely within the video game, all of the action is constrained to this digital universe, and you lose any interesting incongruity. The threat only extends so far as the borders of the game; no one in the real world is in any danger, nor is there any consideration given to their real-world bodies. User Unfriendly builds up the suspense by constantly reminding its players that their bodies are unconscious and vulnerable in a basement somewhere while the bootleg game slowly fries their brain cells and causes Arvin’s mother to begin complaining about a headache and flickering ominously.

Interestingly, the tagline of the Jumanji game itself never quite jibed with the personal arcs of the kids who discovered it: A game for those who seek to find a way to leave the world behind. It does give Alan an alternative to boarding school, but it’s not a very good alternative. Bringing the animals into the real world doesn’t quite translate, either. I will give Welcome to the Jungle, which resurrects that phrase in the video game’s pixelated opening, some points for hewing closest to the message: Spencer wrestles with the temptation to be Smolder Bravestone forever, afraid of returning to his puny real-world existence. But I suspect I’m giving the movie too much credit.

If you really want to leave the world behind, I recommend that you rewatch Jumanji for the childlike wonder, then read User Unfriendly for an actually immersive experience. Leave Welcome to the Jungle in the trash pile.

Natalie Zutter was really tickled to see the serial killer from “Too Many Cooks” in his tiny cameo. Talk old fantasy novels and sequels with her on Twitter!

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