Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (United States, 2017)December 20, 2017
Every year, there are a handful of pleasant and unpleasant surprises in multiplexes. Count Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle among the former. A tremendous improvement over the tepid 1995 original, this quasi-sequel brings humor, fun performances, and a canny understanding of late 1990s-style video games to a party that never takes itself seriously. Although the Rock flexes his biceps and exudes charisma, Kevin Hart does the kind of comedy he excels at, and Karen Gillan kicks ass as solidly as Black Widow, the show-stealer is Jack Black, whose gender-confused wilderness explorer is not only consistently funny but represents a smart bit of acting.
Guns & Roses reference aside, this new Jumanji opens with a prologue that begins where the previous film left off, with the troublesome board game half-buried in 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. After all, it’s 1996 and no one plays board games anymore. He’s into video games. Jumanji, apparently recognizing this, transforms itself into a cartridge for a SNES-style console. Alex is intrigued, starts it up, and realizes he probably shouldn’t have done that…
Skip ahead 20 years. Four random high school students – geek Spencer Gilpin (Alex Wolff), football player Fridge Johnson (Ser’Darius Blain), hot babe Bethany Walker (Madison Iseman), and mousey Martha Kaply (Morgan Turner) – are serving detention cleaning out a basement. There, they find the Jumanji video game and, 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 svelte, 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 “game over” and winning requires progressing through increasingly difficult levels, solving riddles, and eventually battling the Big Boss. Their ultimate nemesis is the bad-to-the-bone Van Pelt (Bobby Cannavale), the only returning character from the first Jumanji (although played here by a different actor). 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.
The original Jumanji was an intriguing idea, poorly developed and executed. Welcome to the Jungle corrects many of the problems of its predecessor and provides the viewer with a better overall two hours of entertainment. Credit director Jake Kasdan (son of Lawrence) with keeping things moving and getting the best out of his four leads. The movie struggles a little with pace early on but the “real world” first 15 minutes are necessary to introduce the characters and make their contrasts with their avatar-selves interesting and amusing.