In her famous 1975 essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, Laura Mulvey argued that Hollywood cinema was structured by male gaze and male identification. The male spectator watches some male hero like, say, Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca or Daniel Craig in a Bond film, as he shoots the bad guys, resists the Nazis, saves England, sweeps women off their feet, and looks cool while making things happen. The watcher gets to feel “the power of the male protagonist as he controls events.” The fun of Hollywood film, in Mulvey’s view, is that it gives (mostly) men the chance to pretend to be more powerful men.
Jumanji: The Next Level is aware of this dynamic, and caters to it to some extent. But writer-director Jake Kasdan also offers alternative pleasures. Rather than men identifying with the power of the male protagonist, the movie gives everyone of various genders, races, and ages the chance to identify with everyone else and their horse. The narrative isn’t driven by one male hero, but by the gleeful spectacle of different protagonists picking up identification like a Super Soaker and then spraying it all over each other. Some 45 years after Mulvey’s essay, many action movies do function as a dreary uptight slog of unitary male power. But Jumanji shows there’s more pleasure in moving to a different, more polymorphous, and less predictable level.
The original 1995 Jumanji was an uninspired Robin Williams vehicle about a board game that summons marauding jungle creatures and proceeds to cause chaos in a small town. The 2017 reboot, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, shared little with its predecessor except the name. A group of kids discover a magic video game which transports them into a jungle setting where they take on the bodies of archetypal adventurers. The hero, nerdy high school loser Spencer Gilpin (Alex Woolf), ends up in the body of muscle-bound, smoldering archaeologist Dr. Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson); his love interest, shy nerdy intellectual Martha Kaply (Morgan Turner), transforms into uber-fit man-killer and dance-fighter Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan).
Welcome to the Jungle has a good deal of fun with shuffling identities and identification. Jack Black turns in a hilarious and surprisingly respectful portrayal of popular phone-obsessed teen girl Bethany Walker (Madison Iseman), for example. But ultimately the story is about how Spencer learns to be a man by being projected into the body of a standard sexy, strong, brave male protagonist. The film messes around in the Mulvey script a bit, but doesn’t really challenge it.
That’s why Spencer, at the beginning of The Next Level, finds the idea of returning to Jumanji appealing. His freshman year at college is not going so well; he’s lonely, plagued by self doubt, and his long-distance relationship with Meg is on the rocks. He wants to be cool and strong and empowered again. So he decides to play the game that made him feel that way. He reassembles the circuitry of the video game he and his friends smashed at the end of the last film and returns to that trusty Mulvey narrative, designed to give men the pleasure of being men.
And then everything goes rather wonderfully wrong. Spencer doesn’t end up in Smolder Braveman’s body. Instead, his aging crotchety grandfather Eddie (Danny DeVito) is incredibly confused to find himself with Braveman’s pecs. Spencer’s other friends, determined to rescue him, also end up in different people; sports star Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain) becomes portly archaeologist Sheldon Oberon (Jack Black), and Gillan’s Ruby Roundhouse—some characters even find themselves in the body of a horse.
The adventurers do solve puzzles and fight ostriches and mandrills, as you’d expect in an action film. But the inventively choreographed fight scenes and death-defying escapes are really just an excuse to watch the excellent ensemble cast swap mannerisms and pass DeVito’s rasping New Jersey accent back and forth among each other like some hideous contagion of the larynx.
Part of the greatness of the film is the fact that the actors seem to be enjoying themselves so thoroughly. Dwayne Johnson, who is normally stuck as a standard boring heroic male lead, obviously relishes the chance to be the confused grouchy comic relief. Kevin Hart gets to shuffle out of his kinetic wisecracking persona to play Eddie’s slow-talking frenemy and business partner Milo (Danny Glover). There’s no one narrative perspective because no one is a single person. Stars get to be character actors, character actors get to be stars, and gender, race, age, and narrative focus get resolutely swapped and shuffled.
That shuffling is an empowering pleasure in itself. The standard action movie hard-bodied guy who fights and romances and wins is, as Mulvey says, a long-established formula for making screen viewers feel special and strong. But it’s also incredibly limiting and tedious, like eating the same steak for every meal forever, or watching the new James Bond trailer even once. Spencer is somewhat disappointed that he doesn’t get to be the awesome male protagonist. But viewers are encouraged to identify with Bethany, who hugs herself in joy when she’s finally returned to her pudgy but familiar Jack Black body, or with Milo, who’s delighted when he gets shifted into someone completely unexpected.
Yes, identifying with the tough guy can be awesome. But it’s also a charge to identify with someone of various genders who is funny or old or familiar or different. Why would you be a boring dude saving the day when instead you can be Awkwafina channeling Danny DeVito sharing a tender moment with a horse? Mulvey pointed out how rote, predictable, and, of course, sexist Hollywood movies can be. Jumanji: The Next Level cosigns that criticism by providing an alternative. It’s a giddily preposterous celebration of the power of art to put you in someone else’s story—or several someone else’s—all at once. v