Back in 1995, a small town was terrorised by monkeys in a police car. But times change, people change, and in 2017, nothing is scarier than a video game. Thus we have Jumanji: Welcome To The Jungle, a sequel to a Robin Williams vehicle that is remembered more fondly in retrospect than it was received at the time. Sequels designed for demographics who weren’t alive for the earlier instalments are less risky because they have less to live up to, and Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle has very little in common with its inspiration.
Four high schoolers find an old video game console with a copy of Jumanji in it, so they decide to play. They get sucked into the game and find themselves in the jungle, transformed into their player characters: hypochondriac Spencer (Alex Wolff, Patriots Day) becomes the rugged Smoulder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson, The Fate of the Furious), football player Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain) becomes the diminutive zoologist Mouse Finnbar (Kevin Hart, Captain Underpants), nerdy girl Martha (Morgan Turner) becomes “man killer” Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan, The Circle), and popular girl Bethany (Madison Iseman) becomes cartographer Shelly Oberon (Jack Black, Kung Fu Panda 3). The teens must reach the end of the game in order to return to the real world, and they each have only three “lives” to achieve it.
Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is a film that has a subtitle because it would seem slightly disingenuous to call it Jumanji 2. Where the concept of the original saw the jungle bleed into the real world, the video game version completely takes over the story. The framing device serves largely to establish who the main actors are channeling, and the juxtaposition of the personalities with their new forms is where most of the film’s humour is derived from. To that end, Black steals the movie and runs away with it. There’s something affecting about a 48-year-old man playing a teenage girl for laughs but also with a deep reserve of empathy. Despite being introduced as a somewhat clichéd Instagram model, Bethany is the best-written character in the film; while “pretty girl has depth” is its own class of cliché, Black lends dimensionality to what could easily have been a one note character.
Johnson has the charisma that several of his recent roles have sorely lacked, Gillan does her own thing — there’s no way of determining what accent she’s going for, but she’s certainly acting dual roles — and Hart is content to coast on short jokes. It’s almost as if the script called for Fridge to show almost no humility, and for Spencer to accept him for who he is; essentially a same-gender spin on the classic rom-com staple of a woman loving a buffoon suffering arrested development. This would probably come from the same school of thought that sees none of the protagonists wielding firearms: evil bikers have automatic weapons, but they’re summarily dispatched by way of boomerangs, pluck, stick-to-it-iveness and dance.
Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle throws a smokescreen over its shortcomings with the excuse of its video game origins. The villain, played by Bobby Cannavale (Ferdinand), is a literal end-game boss who receives unnecessary scenes mid-movie so that the producers feel like he’s earning his keep. But this is a video game, and one light on story; Van Pelt isn’t real, and nothing that he does matters. For the high school heroes, actions have consequences. For all of the non-player characters, they’re just sucking up screen time.
Director Jake Kasdan (TV’s The Grinder), fresh from a stint in the sitcom production mines, brings a confidence to proceedings that sees him giving the actors their moments without neglecting the jungle spectacle that the game promises. The script, written by the teams of Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers (Spider-Man Homecoming), plus Scott Rosenberg (TV’s Zoo) and Jeff Pinkner (The Dark Tower), is more cohesive than one might expect. Despite a disappointing dearth of monkeys, they understand that the story of their characters is more important than the doubly fictional world they inhabit, and there is a legitimate sense of humour throughout the film. The only element that makes no sense is the fact that Ruby Roundhouse’s weakness is venom: everyone’s weakness is venom.
Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is a decent light-comedy adventure film that forgets much of what distinguished its predecessor, but stands on its own feet. Jack Black alone would be worth the price of admission, but fortunately there’s more to recommend the film than a middle-aged man playing a 20-year-old woman playing a 16-year-old girl. Nothing about Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle screams instant classic, but it certainly whispers “worthy enough diversion”.
Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle opened in Australian cinemas on December 26, 2016.
Directed by: Jake Kasdan.
Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Jack Black, Kevin Hart, Karen Gillan, Bobby Cannavale, Alex Wolff, Madison Iseman, Ser’Darious Blain, Morgan Turner and Nick Jonas.