There comes a point in the middle of Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle where the core cast stumble upon a shelter once used by Alan Parrish, Robin Williams’ character, in his time inside of the game, and I don’t think I would have caught the reference (or paid enough attention to it in order to look it up) if they hadn’t pointed it out in a variety of different ways by the end of the scene. That’s indicative of the cultural space that the first film inhabits in most kids who grew up with the film: The names and the plot outside of the bare basics didn’t stick, and the things that did — Williams’ bearded howl of “What year is it?” as he emerged from the game, the crazy animal stampede — are fuzzy and full of noise like it was on a letterboxed VHS tape.
That is to say that if we’re making movies to evoke that warm feeling of nostalgia in the millennials who might be in charge of movie-viewing decisions for their families after the holiday get-together, you could do a worse job. Nobody was really clamoring for this sequel, especially after the psychic trauma of Williams’ death, but given it’s in the hands of a capable cast fronted by the always-entertaining Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, you’ve got some pretty solid family entertainment (provided you and yours have already seen The Last Jedi), regardless of the name before the colon.
In meatspace, we’re introduced to a group of kids — Spencer (Alex Wolff), a gamer with helicopter parents, Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain), a football player who used to be Spencer’s best friend before becoming popular, Martha (Morgan Turner), a precocious/pretentious bookworm, and Bethany (Madison Iseman), a popular girl who’s seemingly attached to her phone — who are, much like in The Breakfast Club and a thousand other movies, forced to endure detention together after a series of mishaps. Taken to their high school’s basement and tasked with the kind of menial slave labor that we all definitely know works in improving behavior — removing the staples from soon-to-be recycled magazines — the teens eventually get bored as hell and start fucking around with random stuff on the shelves.
They strike paydirt when they find a working video game console with some weird game in it called “Jumanji” (and no, not the one released for PC in 1995), and they decide to play the game before getting back to work. Unfortunately for them, the game has some other ideas. As shown in the ’90s-set prologue, the Jumanji board game, after discovering that the hip young teens like the metal music and the Sony Playstation, pivots to video (much like your average digital publication) and becomes a game cartridge. So, our detained delinquents get sucked into the video game –literally, not like what happens when you decide to play Ridiculous Fishing while on the john — and find themselves a) in a weird-ass jungle inside of the game and b) transformed into the video game characters they selected at the start.
Shockingly enough, each of the kids are given interesting roles and decently satisfying arcs. Spencer is transformed into Johnson’s character, Dr. Smolder Bravestone (the actual name of the character), and this mismatch of body type and personality allows the Rock to do what he does best: Subvert his hyper-masculine image and persona with endearing humor and awkwardness. He’s got to learn how to be a badass, of course, and it’s fun to see him fuck up along the way. Fridge gets transformed into the diminutive weapons valet and zoologist “Mouse” Finbar (Kevin Hart), and the dude freaks out about how short he is, of course. Hart’s cast in a somewhat of an awkward role: He’s not given that much along the lines of his normal hyperactive brand of comedy, and he’s also tasked with shouldering a fair amount of the dramatics between him and Johnson. He does a decent job with the latter, but the humor doesn’t totally work, especially compared to his work with Johnson in Central Intelligence.
Morgan is transformed into the scantily-clad commando Ruby Roundhouse, played by Doctor Who alum and Guardians of the Galaxy star Karen Gillan, and her outfit caused the movie to get some pre-release heat from Tumblr and all corners of the net. Ostensibly, her tiny shorts and leather top are meant to evoke the video game stylings of a character like Tomb Raider’s Lara Croft, and even though the movie makes some jokes at how horribly sexist those clothing choices are, the movie still feels like it’s trying to have the best of both worlds — the outfit and praise for their self-awareness. That’s a bit of a shame, as this controversy has concealed the fact that Gillan is a gifted comedic actress, and she does quite well in the ensemble.
However, the standout amongst the four leads is easily Jack Black, playing Dr. Shelly Oberon, the portly avatar chosen by Bethany (under the impression that the “curvy cartographer” description meant the character was a buxom woman), and Black takes what looks to be a one-note joke — look at the fat guy pretending to be a girl! — and transforms it into something resembling an actual character. It helps that he has the best arc of any of them, as Bethany learns a lot about herself once she’s put some distance between herself and her phone, and begins to regain some of the personality she lost in pursuit of internet fame. Black commits to the performance totally, and captures the mannerisms of his meatspace alter-ego with aplomb (needless to say, this might be the oddest way a film passes the Bechdel test in this calendar year)
Anyways, the four, struggling with their new bodies and their various abilities, are tasked by an Aussie driver to complete an epic quest spanning a series of levels spanning across the jungle, where they’ll have to interact with the wildlife and a variety of NPCs (non-playable characters) in order to accomplish their mission. The jungle is roughly what you’d imagine it to look like — a fair blend of the varied locales of the Uncharted video game series — and there’s not too much that would cause it to stand out, as director Jake Kasdan’s best asset has always been his scene-by-scene comedic skills rather than crafting the stunning vistas that one might expect from a film like this. The action sequences are hit or miss as well, as every truly fun encounter with wildlife (say, when Black attempts to have a staring contest with a cobra) is seemingly followed by a weird and underwhelming scene of Gillan dance-fighting to Peter Frampton. Yeah.
Perhaps the setting and its action wouldn’t feel as generic if their external conflict was clearer. What exactly is the big threat here? Well, it’s kind of hard to make out — something involving an evil and bored-looking Bobby Cannavale and a giant statue of a Jaguar with a magical jewel on top of it that he’s stolen — but the powers that the jewel grant to the wearer are vague and rarely used in the story, and Cannavale is in the movie for roughly 20 minutes. In short, he’s only here because these kinds of stories require an external threat to ensure that the plot moves along at a decent enough clip and provide a stable structure, and we only care about the jewel because it’s what our characters will use in order to get the fuck home. The real conflict is found within the characters and, as mentioned, they’re satisfying, for the most part. All of this is complicated once a decent Nick Jonas shows up as a charismatic pilot who’s been trapped in the game for 20 years, but even he’s incorporated well-enough in the ensemble that his heroics still have weight.
Still, it’s really not that bad!
As far as I’m concerned, it’s super easy to recommend Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle as a particularly decent example of the kind of studio adventure movie with cross-generational appeal that’s been sort of lost in the past few years with the resurgence of the December blockbuster. It is by no means perfect, but thanks to some compelling casting and the go-for-broke efforts put forth by those involved, it’s a really decent time at the movies. They save the Guns N’ Roses needle-drop until the credits, which is shockingly restrained for a picture like this.
Also, it’s probably the best video game movie made since Doug Liman’s Edge of Tomorrow, and, like that film, it doesn’t feel particularly pandering to a specific subset of nerds at the detriment to a larger audience (Ready Player One will ignore these examples at its peril). Jumanji’s as good as a sequel to a forgettable 21-year-old children’s movie possibly could be, and is surprisingly faithful to its predecessor’s world and its logic, even when it totally didn’t have to be. And, hey, it’s not Zathura, thank Christ.