We got fun and games
When I heard that a sequel to Jumanji was being made, I had the same initial reaction that I’m sure many of you had: “Oh come on, how could they ruin a classic.” Until I thought long and hard about the Robin Williams classic and realized…yeah that movie probably wasn’t as great as I remembered it. It’s absurdly bleak, bizarrely uncouth humor, and yeah was pretty much only supported by Williams’ great charisma. But of course, producing this endeavor of a sequel is Sony…who have had an incredibly bad track record this year. So consider me absolutely surprised that Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle did NOT piss me off. As a matter of fact, it’s actually fun.
But before we can get to the fun, the film forces you to slog through yet another Breakfast Club knockoff with four teenagers all winding up in detention. You have your nerd, Spencer; your jock, Fridge; your narcissistic Instagram-obsessed diva, Bethany; and a disrespectful overachiever, Martha. As the four are forced to clean up a storage area to serve out their weekend of detention, they discover through the mess an old video game called “Jumanji.” Bored with their detention, they hook the game up to the television and each of the four select different characters. Only the game sucks the teens into the game itself and the teens transform into their respective avatars: Spencer becomes the dashing and ultra strong Dr. Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson), Fridge becomes the short weapons valet Franklin “Mouse” Finbar (Kevin Hart), Martha becomes a Lara Croft-dressing commando Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan), and Beth becomes the overweight cartographer Professor Sheldon (Jack Black).
Once trapped in the game, Jumanji lays out their mission: return a jewel called the Eye of the Jaguar to its rightful place and reverse the curse placed on the land by the guy who initially stole the Eye, Van Pelt (Bobby Cannavale). Helping the quartet along is yet another teen who has been trapped in the game for a long time, now inhabiting the body of the pilot, Jefferson Seaplane McDonough (Nick Jonas). Together the players have to survive the various armed mercenaries and wild animals that mean them harm as they try to obey the game’s arbitrary rules and avoid dying horribly…multiple times as each of them have been given three lives like a regular video game.
Bizarre set up ironically leads to a decent time in the theaters. Seriously, this is the inverse of Bright where a decent premise gives way to a frustratingly bad story that just pisses you off with every minute it continues. Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, by contrast, starts horribly with an unfunny ripoff before outlining some arbitrary rules and giving you a pretty enjoyable action flick that toys with and pokes fun at the nonsensical rules they are now bound by. On top of that, the film even takes the time to give your leads solid and concrete character arcs that, while simplistic, are still earned given what the characters are put through.
When you have a film that checks off the basic needs of character engagement, it allows your movie to take weirder narrative digressions that may not always work but your audience will still go along with you. See The Last Jedi or Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 for this phenomenon in action. And the effective balance of the writing and the actors’ solid charisma help bind you to these characters to see where they go. Even better, this cast has amazing chemistry with each other, particularly between The Rock and Kevin Hart who have worked together before. Karen Gillan is used to working with large casts and injecting curious levels of pathos into her characters. Hell, even one of the former Jonas Brothers has some decent comedic chops. And Jack Black is…well, the best damn part about this movie.
Seriously, he looked like he was having an enormous amount of fun playing a self-absorbed teenager trapped in a pudgy adult man’s body. And that fun is practically infectious since he avoids route pratfalls and toys more with a mismatched persona. He makes a dick joke genuinely work for Christ’s sake, in a kids movie no less. But Black commits to the absurdity of the situation, so he never stops making you believe what he’s saying and he also doesn’t stop delivering well-timed jokes.
Additionally, the circumstances of the plot does allow for a plethora of comedic possibilities that the writers and cast take full advantage of. Decent jokes are written about each character’s strengths and weaknesses but they are even funnier when you see them play out in the game by the cast’s reactions. Even fight and chase sequences look and feel absurd, so you continue to laugh with everyone else as the crew ups the ante on what threats the players have to face. One minor complaint I do have is that I would have liked to see more animals pose a threat to the protagonists as opposed to generic mercenaries with guns. Some of the darkest laughs had in the movie are characters suffering gruesome fates by getting eaten or stomped on by various creatures, and it also made the film stand out on its own from the usual action spectacle.
And I guess while on my list of nitpicks, the villain is generic as all get out and doesn’t even meet our heroes until more than halfway through the movie. Then again, he’s really not the focus of the movie, so his part should have been cut out entirely. Because the real heart of this movie are seeing these teenagers inhabit bodies that contrast fiercely with their established personalities and learning valuable life lessons from their experience. Yes, it’s very Saturday morning cartoon level writing, but that’s basically what the movie set out to do and succeeds in becoming: a decent family-friendly outing that entertains both kids and adults. And given the fact I’ve seen many other films fail at delivering such a basic idea, it’s honestly impressive that the film managed to pull the feat off.
Tying everything together is Jake Kasdan (son of The Empire Strikes Back and The Force Awakens‘ Lawrence Kasdan), who has had plenty of experience in turning silly ideas into pleasant surprises as he did with Orange County and Walk Had: The Dewey Cox Story. His strength as a comedic director is mostly creating absurd, madhouse worlds populated by straight-laced but heavily flawed characters all trying to learn basic life lessons. And he applies that sensibility wonderfully with the sequel to Jumanji (and yes, they do make a connection to the first movie), and ends up creating something that feels wholly different from its source material and entertaining in its own right. And sometimes, as a critic, that’s literally all that I could ask for.
While it’s not something I’d normally tell you to go rush out and see, if you’re looking for an easy going time at the theaters and you’ve seen Star Wars over eight times, then this movie will keep you entertained and will likely leave your kids satisfied with something fun. I’ll give this a highly encouraging…