Review: Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle
It’s been 22 years since Jumanji roared into theaters, but now under the leadership of director Jake Kasdan and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, we finally have a sequel, but does it live up to Robin Williams’ fierce SFX spectacle?
You’ll notice early on, only moments into Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, that the original’s magic isn’t quite there. The first Jumanji, directed by Joe Johnston (Captain America: The First Avenger, The Rocketeer) was an entertaining blend of adventure with stakes and sentiment with heart, all of which complimented Williams’ “funny-man” humor. Kasdan’s sequel doesn’t attempt to replicate the original, but instead focuses on the humor in a different setting. It’s a new game with new rules, but mixed results.
The hardwood board game of old, sentient in its ominous ways, has camouflaged itself as a retro game cartridge and waits patiently on a dusty shelf at the local high school, eventually luring four teens with its jungle beats. (How it made its way from a teenager’s bedroom to the school’s storage room is not explained.)
Much like a CW show, the teens are unique in their own stereotypically familiar ways. You have the dorky, antisocial boy; a snobby, popular girl; the intelligent, but unpopular girl; and the all star quarterback, all of whom are transformed into familiar faces (Johnson, Jack Black, Karen Gillan, and Kevin Hart) as they are sucked into the jungle game of Jumanji.
Some of the most enjoyable parts of the movies come from the majority of the actors playing against type. Dwayne Johnson entertains as an insecure muscle man, who sometimes “smolders” for no reason, while Jack Black steals the show as a teenage girl not only stuck in a middle-aged man’s body, but having to deal with “boy parts.” There’s also an amusing moment where Karen Gillan’s character, Martha, is learning to flirt for the first time. Most of the actors are successful to various degrees at “chameleoning” their ways into the established personalities. (Hart is the least successful, but funny nonetheless.) Later, Nick Jonas joins the team and delivers a little bit of the heart as a lost teenager, who has been stuck in the game for twenty years.
I can’t deny that I left the film with a good mood, but the more it sat with me, the more I noticed the unmet potential. For one thing, there are no stakes. There’s a danger that something bad might happen if your three lives run out, but no one ever feels like they’re in danger nor acts like it. Also, so much could have been done with the film’s setting. If you don’t count the animated series, this is the first time we’ve seen the world inside Jumanji and while the game was so proactive in its attempts to fight the characters in our world back in 1995, it doesn’t quite have the same omnipresent, empowering quality in its video game form. Better yet, other than mocking NPCs (Non-Playable Characters) and cut scenes from time to time, the movie could have been benefited from playing upon video game tropes a bit more. It kind of feels like a movie about video games written by those who don’t play video games (something that has ailed video game movies since Super Mario Bros. in 1993).
Faults aside, the movie is good for a few laughs on a Sunday afternoon. However, the best thing about it is not the film itself, but how much it makes you want to relive and discuss the original film.