Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle – Review

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3 STARS

Director: Jake Kasdan
Cast: Dwayne Johnson, Karen Gillan, Jack Black, Kevin Hart

Following on directly from 1995’s Jumanji, Welcome to the Jungle continues the story of the (magical? Cursed?) board game that sucked up a young boy and spat out Robin Williams. This time around it’s managed to evolve into a video game that sucks up four unsuspecting youths who must finish the game in order to escape. As such, there is a certain amount of scepticism to be had, naturally. Jumanji is a classic, pure and simple. Tread lightly, all ye who dare meddle with such a 90s staple. But meddle ye did, and was it a victory, or game over?

The best thing about this movie is that it doesn’t try to be 95’s Jumanji. Somehow, miraculously, it completely has its own thing going on. Many may wonder pre-viewing just why this had to be labelled a Jumanji movie – surely that’s just a money-making ploy? Even if it were, in hindsight I am personally glad the idea of Jumanji was used as a core part of the narrative. Although we never saw Alan Parrish (Robin Williams) in the ‘95 Jumanji jungle, we can comfortably assume, mostly from adult Alan’s descriptions, that his experience there was not a good one. In Welcome to the Jungle the teenagers get to be variations of themselves, for better or worse, and so their experience becomes quite different to that of Alan’s (plus Alan had to rely on Kirsten Dunst’s Judy and Bradley Pierce’s Peter to release him from the game, whereas the WttJ teens have only themselves). This different take on the game itself is what gives the movie its own legs to stand on. To paraphrase an early line from the movie, who actually plays board games anymore? This is Jumanji for a new generation, and it actually works.

Although not quite an original idea (if you know a little 1982 movie named Tron), Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers, Scott Rosenberg and Jeff Pinkner’s script is written well enough to inject something fresh into a plot that could have turned out wildly boring. The breath of fresh air comes from the teenage view of the adult avatar characters. Just as most male writers admit difficultly in writing female characters, the same could be said for writing teenage characters (and female teenage characters? Good luck). Somehow the foursome managed to pull it off and create something that is truly likeable by all ages and certainly relatable for the age-appropriate. Although the characters’ reactions to being pulled into a video game lacks in shock, for the most part the tensions, attitudes and developments are highly reminiscent of what teenagers tend to go through.

As far as performances go, overall they rate highly. Dwayne Johnson playing loner-geek Spencer in the body of Smolder Bravestone, possibly the buffest man in video game existence, is perfect casting. Johnson is the last person you’d think of to be the stereotypical “loser”, and so for him to play that teenage role in a full-grown man’s body is risky, but Johnson has proven he has the ability to pull it off.

Karen Gillan’s turn as Martha, a character similar to Spencer, in the body of Ruby Roundhouse is also great casting. Gillan herself comes across as a strong woman who does not realise she is such, and that works perfectly for her character. Ruby is very much a man’s physical ideal of a woman in a video game (what does one expect when the writing team consists solely of men), but the same could be argued for Johnson’s character being perhaps a woman’s stereotypical ideal of a man. The character of Martha/Ruby is not necessarily played so stereotypically. Martha is smart, both in the “real” world and in the jungle. She does wonder why she is wearing such little clothing whilst in a jungle and shies away from having too much on show. She also kicks ass, and is often the reason they’re all able to progress in the game. She’s not just some damsel-in-distress: she’s a protagonist in her own right.

Jack Black has possibly not been this worth watching since School of Rock. Watching Black as Bethany/Shelly Oberon is like seeing an old friend going back to who they used to be before something (Hollywood) had a negative effect. Somehow Black manages to play a vain, self-absorbed teenage girl in the body of an “overweight middle-aged man” quite comically, and, as is a bit unusual for Black, not so over-the-top that he/she becomes annoying. Black may have found his new calling in future projects.

Providing a humourous yet inconsequential performance as the jock-turned-zoologist Fridge/Moose Finbar, Kevin Hart’s character is perhaps the weakest of the four. He doesn’t seem to have his own niche – Spencer has the geek-turned-hero, Martha goes from guarded and self-conscious to more open and confident, and Bethany learns to understand how to rely on her mind and personality over her looks.  Fridge is the academically-challenged athlete that supposedly develops more of a brain through his avatar of Finbar, but he never really takes anything from that. They all come quite far in their character development during the course of the film, even contributing to each other’s growth, except Fridge. Any progress he may have made is revealed only at the very end of the movie when it appears that spending a life-threatening day in the jungle with the other three made him, in the very end, more aware of others and less concerned with himself. To see him develop consciously throughout the film would have made for a stronger character.

Despite a feeling of trepidation at the opening of the movie (the strength of that feeling is most obvious from fans of the first Jumanji) it’s easy to relax into the movie pretty quickly upon meeting the teenage versions of the characters. As much as the ensemble of Johnson, Gillan, Black and Hart has commendable chemistry, the same can be said for the young actors who only have brief screen time together – they very much set up the relationships between them all suitably well, leading seamlessly in to their video game selves.

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is generally a good, fun film, but it doesn’t break any new ground. There’s nothing particularly new from director Kasdan that sets it apart from other laugh-a-minute teen-based movies. It could be argued that 95’s Jumanji has more depth to it through Alan’s story and what the youngsters of that film actually go through. The teens in WttJ have that familiar nonchalance that comes from a generation used to seeing everything through television screens via games consoles. Kasdan and the screenwriters appear to have traded in pathos for more humour for this version, and for the average cinemagoer who is just looking for an escape and a chuckle, it suits perfectly well. For anyone hoping for anything more, you won’t be in luck here.

So what are the chances that there will be a third film? It doesn’t necessarily set itself up for a sequel, unlike its predecessor, so the possibility doesn’t seem likely (despite rumours of an alternate ending that apparently sets the universe up for another), and that would be ok. There is such a thing as pushing it, a concept that Hollywood often plays dumb to, and so keeping the Jumanji series at just two movies and a cartoon TV show from the 90s would be just fine. However if this movie becomes a financial success (critics be damned) then the likelihood of a third is certainly increased, and all involved will very much run the risk of damaging the reputation that was jeopardised by this movie. Luckily this one has managed to preserve the legacy. Leave well enough alone, many of us say. But will they listen? Give it another twenty years, I say.

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