Director: Jake Kasdan
Screenplay: Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers, Jake Kasdan, Scott Rosenberg, Jeff Pinkner
Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Jack Black, Kevin Hart, Karen Gillan, Nick Jonas, Bobby Cannavale
Runtime: 119 Minutes
The original 1995 fantasy adventure film Jumanji was one of the biggest box-office smashes of that year, and an overall entertaining piece of popcorn filmmaking courtesy of director Joe Johnston and a leading performance from the late Robin Williams. Although a belated sequel to the film was in development years before the death of Williams, the response to the move was overwhelmingly negative given the originals nostalgic place in popular culture.
But while Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is very much a continuation to that film by taking place in the same universe 20 years later, it’s overall a very different creation that places a primary focus on comedy and action as opposed to the pulpy B movie attitude of the original. Opening with a forced explanation as to the board games transformation into a 90s video game, the players this time are sucked into the world of Jumanji itself as opposed to allowing the viewer's imagination to fuel their own conception of what this hellish landscape must look like.
To put it more plainly, the lack of imagination on show in this new instalment is immediately apparent given its broader target demographic and its casting of larger than life movie stars as the leads, but it’s also a part the film’s one clever gimmick; that the young school kids playing the game are being represented by the avatars they have chosen.
Much of the film relies on this as a form of comedy for juxtaposition; Spencer, the scrawny nerd becomes the muscular action hero Dr Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson), the tough jock becomes a small weapons caddy (Kevin Hart), the vain poplar girl becomes an overweight middle-aged man (Jack Black) and the shy introvert becomes a sexy commando (Karen Gillan). These are all intentionally broad stereotypes and there is a fun to be had of seeing most of these stars play up to their own public personas and expectations in different ways.
When the film works it’s when it’s using these archetypes to allow the characters to reflect heavy-handedly but effectively on their own characters and allowing them to grow and change through experience. Call it a rougher retelling of The Breakfast Club but in the setting of an action-packed video game environment, these quieter moments are the ones that stand out in an otherwise loud and noise production. Nick Jonas even turns up as a former player who’s still in the game and actually has the most interesting storyline.
Johnson and Hart still have a proven chemistry given their past work in the genre together. Johnson saves a lot of the movie through his strong personality, but Hart could certainly do with dialling the shouting back. Black is having fun with his role even if it does rely on his reactions to male appendages, and while Gillan has presence and a workable character it doesn’t feel right that the camera is constantly lingering on her body in such a perverse way even with its supposed ironic justification.
The video game conceit is a different issue entirely. While it does use the narrative structure of video game progression as its own in the form of levels and boss fights as they each use their own special abilities of varying significance – as well as poking fun at NPCs and the lives system – it’s a kind of basic and tired story to tell with a boring McGuffin and an even less interesting villain played by the otherwise charismatic Bobby Cannavale, who shares a name and nothing else with the antagonist of the former picture.
The execution itself also isn’t overly remarkable or memorable in any way. Director Jake Kasdan doesn’t do much with the material and feels mostly like a director for hire, with a generally serviceable approach to action but his manner of shooting is almost too frenetic to savour any of the natural landscapes, including some very ropey and obvious uses of CGI at points.
Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle isn’t as terrible an experience as many may have feared, but it shares a name and premise with the original and little more beyond the occasional call-back. It’s an uninvolving but functional blockbuster that gets by mostly on the raw charm of its cast and some nice character moments when it’s allowed to settle down.