Every year we get a film that looks like a complete disaster but manages to defy all odds and end up being a pleasant surprise. In 2017 the recipient of that honor came as the year was wrapping up with the holiday release of Jumanji: Welcome To The Jungle. When the first trailer dropped many people, including myself, thought that it would be a bit of an abomination. It didn’t look like a total travesty but it certainly looked like it would ultimately be forgettable.
Well, color me surprised on Christmas Eve when I checked the film out and it ended up being one of the most entertaining films I’ve had the pleasure of viewing all year. The quasi-sequel to the 1995 original manages to stand on its own while not simply regurgitating aspects of the original. Above all else, it’s the chemistry of its cast that makes Jumanji work and it has the right amount of humor to please a younger audience as well as amusing those of us who are old enough to remember the nostalgia of the original film.
Jumanji opens with a prologue that begins where the previous film left off, with the troublesome board game half-buried in the sand on a nameless beach. After being found and brought home by an unsuspecting man for his son, the boy, Alex Vreeke (Mason Gussione), puts it aside. This is 1996 my friends and no one plays board games anymore. Alex is into video games & Jumanji, apparently recognizing this, transforms itself into a cartridge for a SNES-style console. Alex is intrigued, starts it up, and quickly we see the game come to life in an all too familiar way.
Skip ahead 20 years and are introduced to four random high school students – geek Spencer Gilpin (Alex Wolff), football player Fridge Johnson (Ser’Darius Blain), hot yet narcissistic Bethany Walker (Madison Iseman), and mousey Martha Kaply (Morgan Turner). The four very different teens are serving detention cleaning out a basement and they stumble upon the Jumanji video game. As a way to kill time, they begin playing. Like Alex, they are physically pulled into the game, where they assume the avatars they have chosen. Spencer becomes muscle-bound archeologist Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson). Fridge loses “two feet” of height as Smolder’s sidekick, the diminutive “Moose” Finbar (Kevin Hart). Martha jumps way up on the hotness scale as Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan). And poor Bethany transforms from a curvy blond girl into a pudgy middle-aged man, Professor Shelly Oberon (Jack Black). It doesn’t take long for the characters to figure out that they’re playing Jumanji for real and that they have limited lives before it’s literally “game over”. Winning requires progressing through increasingly difficult levels, solving riddles, and eventually battling the Big Boss. Their ultimate nemesis is Van Pelt (Bobby Cannavale), the only returning character from the first Jumanji (although played here by a different actor).
Much of Jumanji’s success is due to the fact that it’s not simply a straight remake of the 1995 original. I think many of us look at that film through a lens of nostalgia and believe it shouldn’t be touched but there is no denying that years later, we can accept it’s pretty flawed. There is a good idea at its core but it’s saddled with CGI that hasn’t aged particularly well and although we all love the late Robin Williams, it’s probably one of his lesser family efforts. The new film takes the core idea of that film and virtually updates it for a newer audience. The film’s knowledge of 90’s video games leads to some truly humorous moments and allows it to stand apart from its predecessor. Welcome to the Jungle has fun with the tropes and limitations of SNES-style console games, including clunky dialogue/exposition, limited player interaction with game characters, and bizarre strengths and weaknesses. Because the characters all start out with three lives apiece, we get to see each of them die at least once, sometimes in amusing ways.
Much of the credit for Jumanji’s technical achievements and pacing has to go to director Jake Kasdan. I’ve seen some reviews say it goes on a little too long or that the prologue is a bit too long but I think Kasdan keeps things moving at a brisk pace. The opening moments, which feature the teens before they’re sucked into game, are necessary because even though they’re played by more established within the game, their personality types are evident within those actors and we care about them because we got a chance to get to know them before a lot of the action takes place. As for the action, it can be as over the top as it needs to be because we’re supposed to be in a video game. Kasdan gets a lot of wiggle home here because the action is inspired by familiar video game standards and they don’t go on too long.
A good cast goes a long way and Jumanji allows its four main leads to play off their strengths. Dwayne Johnson is a charismatic action star and in the right film, he can really deliver. This is another example because on the one hand he’s playing up his action star persona but he also gets to poke fun at himself a bit because the kid who chooses him as an avatar is a bit of a geek and certainly not all that brave. I got a good laugh at Johnson heroically scaling trees only him screaming due to an encounter with a squirrel by the end of it. Karen Gillan gets to kick a lot of ass while also poking fun at the fact that while she is clearly beautiful, her real-life counterpart is a bit shy which results in her awkwardly discovering how to use some of her assets as a woman to help her friends. Gillan shows a firm grasp of the humor and ends up being a pleasant surprise. Kevin Hart, who can usually be a bit much, gives us just enough of his signature humor to provide the audience with a few laughs. Lastly, there is Jack Black, who has to act like a teenage girl without missing a beat. He gets the majority of the laughs and probably gives one of the most entertaining performances I’ve seen all year. This could’ve easily been a caricature but Black finds the right balance to really make the performance work.
As of this writing, Jumanji: Welcome To The Jungle has exceeded box office expectations with a domestic take of $185.7 million through 13 days of release. It quickly became the movie choice for families who were looking for something to see other than Star Wars: The Last Jedi and I would say, after seeing both films, that Jumanji represents pure entertainment and ends up being a more fun film in comparison. It’s certainly striking a chord and for a film that I thought would be a bit of a disaster, it becomes a prime example of not always judging a book by its cover.