REVIEW – “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” Carefully Treads Old Ground, in an Otherwise Original Non-Sequel

by Joe Hammerschmidt

An old adage is once again proven true this holiday season: third time’s the charm (and easily watchable). The decision-makers at Sony Pictures clearly see no end to mining some of their more legendary IPs and attempting to fashion new films out of their legacy. To this day, I have yet to conquer either the female-driven ‪Ghostbusters‬, or the presumably teen-moody Flatliners, so of course my skepticism toward a “sequel” to the 1995 sleeper hit Jumanji was naturally high, and even with A-listers like ‪Jack Black‬, Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart and Karen Gillan in the lead roles, I was sure it wouldn’t have been enough to prevent the film from dropping a handful of expired eggs in its path while fading into further obscurity and tarnishing the image of its predecessor. Thankfully, and shockingly, in the hands of director Jake Kasdan (‪Bad Teacher‬), that just doesn’t happen. Matter of fact, the attempt to steer as far away from the original as possible, while maintaining its influence, was a risky move that pays off handsomely thanks to the aforementioned cast leading a journey of unbridled family fun that easily runs for the digital roses.‬‬‬

What was originally a board game that had unleashed a string of panic-induced animal stampedes through a sleepy New England town, the playing of Jumanji itself is converted into a first-person adventure-themed video game, where the inner mechanisms of the so-called fictional land are suddenly all too real, at least in the context of gameplay. How it all starts is through what seems like a typical Breakfast Club dynamic, where four misfits of the high school social strata experience a chance encounter.

Absent-minded bookworm Spencer (Alex Wolff), grade-slipping jock Fridge (Ser’darius Blaine) shy girl Martha (Morgan Turner) and semi-classy prepster Bethany (Madison Iseman) are all linked together through a shared session of detention. All estranged best friends in some form, they are lured into the abandoned Jumanji game, now a first-person RPG for an antiquated console of old. The most obvious twist, however, is their bodies are unwillingly sucked into the game, possessing the identities of the avatars they could choose from at the beginning of the game. Spencer assumes the role of the overly muscular Indiana Jones-type adventurer, Dr. Smolder Bravestone (Johnson); Fridge turns into the fact-spouting Moose Finbar (Hart); Martha becomes the bad-ass fighter lass Ruby Roundhouse (Gillan); and the overwhelmingly female Bethany now the male, middle-aged, potentially huggable cartographer Sheldon Oberon, easily mistaken for Shelley (Black).

Once the introductions and first experience into their transplanted world are past, the steady rhythm
of gameplay is quickly reinforced as they encounter numerous obstacles in order to escape. Basically, the quarter must play the full game to leave Jumanji. And they do so, complete with smart-alecky challenges, clever nods to the limitations of late 90s gaming, an encounter with a fifth avatar (Nick Jonas) who had been trapped in the game the full two decades, and an antagonist that neither helps nor hurts the momentum of the film. Bobby Cannivale confidently steps out of his comfort zone in this villain part, albeit with an unsettling accent, and an imbalanced presence that just added nothing to the table, only existing as your standard video game foil by which conflict takes shape.

This non-sequel poses just the right amount of reliance toward its four leads, and the eventual fifth, boosted by Kasdan’s heartfelt directing style. Working off a naturally imperfect screenplay from Chris McKenna (The Lego Batman Movie), Kasdan and his actors perform nothing more than frenetic Hawaiian exploration, still needlessly lacking in pacing issues; It’s more the length of separate sequences, most of them seem longer than is necessary. Yet that does not faze the five stars, all commit to their strengths, in the spirit of good-natured ribbing, ranging from awkwardly expected genitalia jokes to the best example of fight dancing outside of the Marvelverse.

Yes, they all play too much to their characters’ stereotypes, which could either cause annoyance or fly over one’s head. Really, it lends best to an unashamedly meta back-and-forth, as the real humans playing the game discover more of the potential they were lacking in themselves. Kind of an Ugly duckling scenario, in reverse.

Johnson is still a reliable performer, his charisma and effervescent charm tested when melded with that small hint of nerdiness. Hart still exudes that electric fireball personality that shows how much one shouldn’t cross him unless you aren’t already a friend. Gillan shows a reflexive quality to her hilarity, though lacking slightly in deeper emotional clarity; her real-world counterpart, in the few scenes she’s in manages better. Jonas doesn’t get much to work with as the meager mid-point pretty boy, but still performs to the best of his ability; I actually could see the potential that may go into better dramatic roles moving ahead if he so chose. Jack Black, however, is the absolute MVP of the film; it’s not so much for the effeminate female stereotypes he forces into the character, the voice tending to play the worst offender, more for the way his character exhibits bravery against a heightened array of odds as the most polar opposite of the five. Trendy valley girl vs middle-aged, dad-bodied botanist; after this film, those two may forever be one and the same.

While lending itself immensely to its source material, a classic of the 90s with one of Robin Williams’ career-defining performances, Kasdan and McKenna simply do the right thing by pulling a Cloverfield. The namesake Jumanji is not the entire film, it’s just a title and a setting, that simply continues on the legacy in its own original way, while having just the wildest amount of fun in the proceedings. It may not be entirely perfect, nor should it have to be. The expectations were already quite low due to its status as a major studio comedy, albeit one targeted mostly towards the middle-schoolers, and their parents who grew up with the original. I’m confident both brackets will be pleased, as I was just to enjoy a film that actually tries to be funny for the right reasons, at the conclusion of a year where that became such an unnecessary challenge. Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle should be a journey worth embarking on, so long as one can cut as loose as its cast, unafraid to laugh, and enjoy the moment. Get your game face on, and be ready for a blast; and perhaps, it wouldn’t hurt to brush up your knowledge on the original first. (B+)

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle opens in most area theaters this weekend; rated PG-13 for adventure action, suggestive content and some language; 118 minutes.