‘Jumanji’ Delivers A Welcome Return To The Jungle (Movie Review)

Honestly, the bar wasn’t very high for me when it came to my expectations for Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle. I already feel like my title is misleading, as 1995’s Jumanji is not a good movie, let alone some untouchable classic. As much a fan as I was of Robin Williams, there’s a handful of seemingly beloved 90s efforts from the man that I don’t care for.  The idea of taking Jumanji and putting a new spin on it may seem problematic for some and for a good reason, but this 2017 update manages to be another example of how to do nostalgic appropriation right. While the film takes on the premise that was previously explored already, it has some solid new ideas, a game cast and enough adventure-based excitement to make the movie one of the better video game movies not based on a video game.

Picking up exactly where the first film left off, the Jumanji board game finds itself in a new home, and after being rejected by kids more interested in video games, the magic of the game turns it into a video game console. Cut to twenty years later, and some kids (Alex Wolff, Madison Iseman, Ser’Darius Blain and Morgan Turner) find themselves in detention where they must clean up a basement. This leads to the discovery of (you guessed it) the Jumanji video game. Turning on the console, the kids are transported inside of the world of the game, now taking the forms of Dwayne Johnson, Jack Black, Kevin Hart, and Karen Gillan.

The setup is all fairly standard stuff, but essential, because it shows just how much effort the main stars are putting into playing against type. This is an ingenious concept that already finds the film on better footing than the dark and mean-spirited original. Rather than have characters fake being awestruck by random CG visuals (ugly even for their time), the stars are tasked with coming to terms with both the dangerous jungle setting and their new avatars. The performances, as a whole, may not be revolutionary, but seeing the film welcome this sort of challenge is refreshing and only finds a few problematic areas to deal with.

Keeping strengths in mind, Johnson is perfectly comfortable here. His character is inhabited by the mind of a nerdy gamer, which lets Johnson play up some of his comedic strengths that feel in line with the fun he had in Central Intelligence. Hart has the mind of a jock that’s two feet taller than him, so you get the manic energy of Hart coming from a perspective that he should be far from the weakest character in the game. Gillan is in the form of a cliché commando woman with the mind of a shy bookworm who was in detention for objecting to P.E., so the film finds just as many ways to subvert what comes from this character type. Lastly, Black gets to have a ball having the mind of a vapid cheerleader.

If there’s an issue, it’s the way the film relishes a bit too much in the comedy of Black having the mind of the opposite gender. Cutting out the dick jokes and literal bathroom humor could easily knock this very family friendly film down to a PG rating, as well as take some minutes off the nearly two-hour runtime. However, this element aside, the cast chemistry is strong and the film continually finds to put them in humorous situations involving their banter and the logic that is fitting for a video game.

While director Jake Kasdan is not the name I’d expect to pop up for a Jumanji sequel/re-imaging (despite having made one of the best music biopics of all time – Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story), he and the writers really do a good job exploring the nuts and bolts of a video game to their advantage. In addition to letting those elements make exposition into a clever joke involving NPCs (non-playable characters, including one portrayed by Rhys Darby) and one-dimensional villains (Bobby Cannavale) feel necessary, there is a fun portrayal of video game logic that throws physics out the window, while still keeping the stakes alive.

One great idea was giving each character a set number of lives. It’s a standard video game conceit, but once established, the film finds all it needs to keep the audience invested in these kids making it out of Jumanji alive, without anything feeling like a random copout. It even leads to some of the film’s best gags, as there’s time to show some of the morbid consequences of certain actions, without tripping into dark territory. And when all is said and done, the use of lives means getting the characters to work as a team and learn some life lessons, which is not a bad thing for a cheesy and unnecessary Jumanji sequel to successfully achieve as a byproduct.

Even regarding visuals, Jumanji does well balancing the Hawaii filming locations with visual effects that are decent enough but could have that quality chalked up to being a part of a video game that also doesn’t sport the most amazing effects. This doesn’t always forgive the movie’s errors (it’s not consistently hilarious, there’s a lot of mugging, and it feels more like a product than a film at times), but at least the movie knows what it’s trying to be.

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is not on par with the best Chris Van Allsburg game-based-book-turned-movie, the Jon Favreau-directed Zathura: A Space Adventure, but it’s the best film to feature Jumanji in the title. It’s occasionally amusing, clever and enjoyable as far as family movie outings go. It may have to fend off Star Wars: The Last Jedi, but there have been much worse attempts, especially when it comes to replicating nostalgia.


1 Response to “‘Jumanji’ Delivers A Welcome Return To The Jungle (Movie Review)”

  1. Brian White

    Awesome! Good read! I was hoping to have some fun with this one over the Holidays!!!