Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is the sequel to the beloved 1995 Robin Williams classic, that seemingly no one asked for. And yet, here it is, buried in the sand among a slew of other holiday movies, asking moviegoers to get sucked into the mysterious world of the game along with the players one more time.
So how do you emulate a decades old classic such as Jumanji? You bring in someone with the star power to match Robin Williams – Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson certainly ticks that box. He’s got charisma in spades, and just in case that doesn’t do it for everyone, you back him up with able comedic support in Kevin Hart and Jack Black. Williams’ biggest support, on the other hand, was arguably then-upcoming child actress Kirsten Dunst. So far so good. And then finally you show enough respect for the original while making it clear that you are your own beast.
Welcome to the Jungle opens with some of the familiar Jumanji score of old to put a stupid nostalgic grin on your face, and within seconds that thumping heartbeat can be heard, which will again feature heavily throughout. The titular board game gets discovered by a father who obliges and takes it home to his son. The son is unenthused. “Who even plays board games anymore,” he asks sullenly. But then, on opening the box, the movie announces itself by ditching the old format and simply presenting a video game cartridge… Oh ok, it’s gonna be a video game! That’s clever. And we’re off!
Video game-style in movies, from The Matrix to Scott Pilgrim vs. the World to Edge of Tomorrow and the upcoming Ready Player One remains very popular for good reason – they’re hella fun and they speak to a modern audience. Welcome to the Jungle stays true to that expectation. A group of teenagers, portrayed by a cast of decent young actors who you might wanted to have seen a little more of, disappear into the game and assume their avatars. The coddled nerd, Spencer, becomes Dr Smolder Bravestone, our main hero and smoulderer extraordinaire (Johnson). If he does something unexpected, don’t stress, it’s a Bravestone thing. The jock, Fridge, turns into the mousey zoology expert, Moose Finbar (Hart). Loner Martha, meanwhile, morphs into the ass-kicking babe, Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan). And selfie-queen/mean girl Bethany gets stuck as the “middle-aged and fat” Professor Sheldon Oberon (Black).
So you get the idea. The body-swap situation offers plenty of scope for humour in a movie that strikes a confident comedic tone even before we enter the game. Every character gets their chance in the spotlight. Johnson fares well as the reluctant hero, having fun with discovering his newfound strength and the changing dynamic of his rocky friendship with Fridge. Johnson does have to play down his natural likeability considerably though, so he isn’t as much of a standout as you’d usually expect (nowhere near as big as Robin Williams’ at full tilt!). Hart is reliable as the disgruntled jock, Fridge, robbed of his powers and now having to use smarts instead.
The relatively unknown Gillan is good as the invisible Martha-turned-knockout Ruby Roundhouse. She actually gets a lot of the best scenes, such as learning to flirt, discovering her aptitude for dance-fighting or sharing in an awful first kiss. And then we have Black playing the popular Bethany trapped in a man’s body. The actor camps it up a bit, which I guess you could say is somewhat tired in 2017. And he learns with glee about the various functionalities of his penis, yes. And still, I didn’t mind it too much – he still pulls it off in a Jack Black kind of way.
Other mentions should go to Bobby Cannavale as the ridiculously over-the-top villain of the game. He didn’t have to do much here to earn his pay cheque, but maybe he could’ve tried just a little bit harder considering he was following the commanding performance of Jonathan Hyde (remember? He played the big game hunter, Van Pelt). And there’s a Jonas brother in it too, who puts on a pretty flat but fine performance. It’s a kid’s movie, so let’s not be too hard on them here. The kids won’t be, for sure.
In terms of story, WTTJ underperforms compared to its predecessor. You can’t help but feel the movie loses something by substituting the kids so early on. Also almost no time is spent on the backstory, where the original actually made you care about Alan Parrish and his issues with his father, as well as the orphans under his care. The Wizard of Oz-lite transformations the new cast undergo seem shallow by comparison. Similarly, the threat in WTTJ is oddly sanitised, with not enough of a build-up to the chaotic climax like in the original, where the game’s influence becomes all-encompassing. Even the animals aren’t as much fun or as wild or dangerous – you get the sense the creatures weren’t one of the producers’ primary concerns.
But notwithstanding falling short of the original in almost every level, this does not prevent Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle from delivering as a surprisingly enjoyable, self-aware and humorous family action-adventure. It also has a positive message you can’t knock – about choosing the life you want to live, believing in yourself, and not letting others define who you are supposed to be in life. It’s sure to find an audience who, going in with no knowledge of the original, will be thoroughly delighted with the result. Who can one day complain and draw unfavourable comparisons when the next iteration has audiences actually interacting with the game for real.
Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is directed by Jake Kasdan, and stars Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Jack Black, Kevin Hart, Bobby Cannavale, and Karen Gillan.