To be perfectly honest, when Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle was initially announced, the news immediately tripped my fandom phasers to stunned. The original Jumanji – revolving around a magical board game which drops a literal jungle into your backyard – was far from a masterpiece, but it was wholeheartedly a nostalgic affair for Robin Williams’ fans. Action and adventure was the draw, but the warmth and humanity deftly delivered by Williams roared Jumanji to life. Knowing that they would now be plopping this underrated gem onto the remake train, well, you might say I had quite the visceral reaction.
First thing’s first, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is not a complete reboot. In fact, the film has direct, though inconsequential, connections to the first film. It begins in the past, where a young man named Alex stumbles across a Jumanji board game buried in the sand. Sound familiar? He takes it home, where the game itself – yes, this game apparently contemplates strategies to manipulate its players – quickly establishes that Alex has zero interest in an ancient board game. Who could blame him? We all know the only good board game is Monopoly. Therefore, against all available science to the contrary, the game transforms itself into a video game cartridge. Hey, if you can buy elephants trampling downtown and monkeys taking over a jungle gym, this isn’t much of a stretch. Alex gives the game a go, and we flash forward 20 years.
Four teenagers – Spencer, Fridge, Bethany, and Martha – conveniently find themselves assigned to mutual detention in their school basement. They come across the previously mentioned game cartridge, plug it in, and instantly all four of them are transported into the magical land of Jumanji, each dropped into a random avatar within.
Spencer lands in the physical definition of manhood known as Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson; Fridge loses his high-school football physique and finds himself stuck in the more diminutive form of Kevin Hart; Martha awakes as a very kick-ass Karen Gillan; and Bethany (the mean girl of the group) horrifyingly takes on Jack Black’s rotund persona. To get home, they will need to riff and work together to defeat Van Pelt (a villainous Bobby Cannavale) and save Jumanji from his wanton destruction. Basically, it’s Uncharted: The Movie.
The first half is a variation on the “look what this (insert sexy celebrity or Jack Black here) body can do!” theme. Remember when body switching comedies were cool? I sure don’t. It’s a joke that runs its course before it really begins and the fascination Bethany has with Jack Black’s newfound penis powers is juvenile, yet almost worth the price of admission alone. The latter half bumps into overdrive as a team-building exercise in asskickery, leading to a ROCKing conclusion that should keep even the most ADD-addled brains entertained.
What doesn’t work? The cheesy plot machinations yanking our heroes into the game are insanely ridiculous. Not only do we accept that the game can magically come to life, but now it can completely master video game manufacturing as well? And the effects used to demonstrate this Tron moment of being sucked into a video game somehow looked better in 1982. Jumanji is a clever concept, Welcome to the Jungle’s construct is the opposite of that.
What does work? Everything else. For as much as I wanted to chuck my brain down the hallway and catch Star Wars again, once you are inside the game, Welcome to the Jungle is a blast. Navigating the world of Jumanji is a joy, the actors are having almost as much fun as we are, and the nods to modern gamers are far superior to any adaptation Hollywood has cranked out this decade. Each participant enjoys three lives (identified as digital tattoos on their wrist, losing the final one equals death in the physical world), meandering cut scenes, random exposition that repeats until you journey onward; it becomes obvious early on that director Jake Kasdan understands and respects his core audience.
Despite its moronic setup; a charming cast (The Rock and Gillan are easy standouts), genuinely hilarious moments sprinkled throughout, and action fit for an entire family easily leave us with the best video game adaption of a property that never truly existed.
It might not live up to the original, but Robin would be proud.
Starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Karen Gillan, Kevin Hart, and Jack Black
Screenplay by Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers, Scott Rosenberg, and Jeff Pinkner
Directed by Jake Kasdan