A fun, updated take on this classic fictional world.
It’s never easy to try and inject new life into an already popular, well-established property, especially when that property also happens to be Jumanji. Many fans then have been looking towards Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle — this year’s long-gap followup to the beloved, Robin Williams-led 1995 film adaptation of Chris Van Allsburg’s children’s book — with skeptical eyes. Fortunately, Welcome to the Jungle manages to (mostly) maintain the quirky humor and fun of the previous film, while reintroducing the property to a whole new generation.
Set in the modern day, the film opens with an unexpectedly fun twist, as the dangerous Jumanji board game transforms into a video game, so that the more tech-reliant children and adults of today may be more easily sucked into its world. A strategy that proves to be successful for the game when a group of unfortunate students all get sucked into the game one day while serving detention together. They take on the physical forms of the avatars they had each selected from Jumanji’s opening menu.
This results in each member of the main ensemble being played by two different actors, as the portrayals are split between the characters’ actual teenage selves and their adult video game avatars. And with movie stars like Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Jack Black, Kevin Hart, and Karen Gillan cast as the game’s various avatars, the film has a lot of fun subverting the usual personas of each actor, whether it’s The Rock taking on a nerdy, uncomfortable high school dork (Alex Wolff) or Jack Black playing a superficial, pretty popular girl (Madison Iseman).
Most of the film’s comedy comes from those kinds of contradictions, and while the jokes themselves may seem obvious or cheap on paper – like Jack Black constantly asking for his cell phone – the charisma of the actors themselves helps to make a majority of them still land. This is most evident when The Rock and Kevin Hart share a scene. Having worked together previously, Hart and Johnson garner some of the film’s biggest laughs as the rivalry between their high school selves bleeds over into Jumanji’s video game world in often physically comedic and outrageous ways.
With only three lives given to each of them, the four teenagers must try and work together to beat game if they ever hope to make it back to the real world. And with that simple jumping off point, Jumanji proceeds to cheekily play into the kinds of video game and film cliches that have riddled their respective genres, such as unresponsive NPCs or specific character strengths and weaknesses, often to great comedic effect. Even if, at the same time, it feels like the film may be using that self-awareness to try and compensate for its less interesting twists and some of its bargain bin supporting characters.
Unfortunately, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle also frequently moves away from its funnier, lighter moments and blood-pumping action sequences to focus on slowly developing the relationships between its main characters, most of which feel about as bland as imaginable. In particular, the romance between Wolff’s Spencer and Morgan Turner’s Martha is not only terribly cliched, but feels especially uncomfortable when it’s being played by The Rock and Gillan as the avatars.
That, along with Bobby Cannavale’s boring and unintimidating video game villain, keeps Jumanji from being the kind of must-see blockbuster spectacle that its filmmakers may have wanted, especially considering the fierce competition it’ll be going up against at the box office. But for those who were hoping for it to be the ridiculous and zany comedy adventure the trailers had promised, you can rest easy knowing Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle does, indeed, deliver on that.