I’m going to open this review with a controversial statement: The original Jumanji isn’t that good. It’s a fun enough blockbuster with at-the-time revolutionary special effects and a typically likable performance from Robin Williams, but hardly a classic. In that regard Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle succeeds as a sequel by being a fun enough blockbuster with entertaining action scenes, likable performances from Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Karen Gillan, and Jack Black, and not much actual substance.
This time around the famous Jumanji board game has been transformed into a video game through the fairly flimsy excuse of ‘magic’ and ‘no-one plays board games any more’. After a brief prologue in 1996 to explain the game’s transformation, we jump to the present day as Jumanji is found by a group of teenagers in detention. There’s Spencer Gilpin, the nerd; Bethany Walker, the pretty popular girl; Anthony ‘Fridge’ Johnson, the jock; and Martha Kaply, the outsider. It’s noticeable that the film’s depiction of teenagers has barely developed beyond the character types from The Breakfast Club, though admittedly the script does try to make them more relevant by throwing in tired jokes about how teenagers sure do love being on their phones. Fortunately when they get sucked into the world of Jumanji and become their video game avatars the film’s pace and humour picks up considerably, and begins playing with the clichéd characterisations it’s just established. Spencer becomes the muscular Dr. Smolder Bravestone, Fridge becomes short-statured zoologist Franklin ‘Mouse’ Finbar, Martha becomes martial-arts expert and scantily clad bombshell Ruby Roundhouse, and Bethany becomes the portly (male) academic Professor Sheldon Oberon. Having Kevin Hart as a macho jock trying to bully a timid nerd in the body of The Rock, while Jack Black teaches supermodel Karen Gillan how to properly flirt, provides some great character comedy and easiest the best jokes in the film.
Indeed the entire video game premise, while met with criticisms from die-hard fans of the first Jumanji, brings to the movie some refreshingly original concepts and scenarios. I was particularly impressed with how the life-system was utilised, with each character having three lives before Game Over. This provides opportunities to have the leads dying in surprising and occasionally hilarious moments while effectively raising the stakes for when they each start getting down to their final lives. Having the main cast playing stereotypical teens in the bodies of video game avatars enables them to play off their public personas, with Johnson in particular milking his famous smoulder for all it’s worth. He and Kevin Hart recreate the easy chemistry they had in 2016’s Central Intelligence, and Karen Gillan utilises her overly expressive face and knack for physical comedy in scenes where Martha tries and fails to act as the seductive Ruby Roundhouse. And who would have thought Jack Black’s best performance in years would be as a teenage girl? The four leads work off each other so well that the other characters end up feeling flat and unnecessary. Nick Jonas is largely forgettable as another player stuck in the game for twenty years, with none of the quirks that make the other four interesting and introduced too late in the film to make me actually invested in his predicament. Bobby Cannavale as the villainous Van Pelt displays some initial potential, with a threatening presence and the interesting hook of being able to control all the animals in Jumanji, but is ultimately underused and ineffective. Even at the end, when the characters return to the real world and their original forms, I couldn’t help but hope there would be still be some final scene of Johnson, Black, Hart, and Gillan.
It took over twenty years for the first Jumanji film to get a sequel. Time will only tell if it takes Columbia pictures that long to release a new instalment and make this a franchise, but nothing about Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle had me feeling like it would be remotely necessary. It was a fun enough experience, but I can’t see myself wanting to return to the jungle any time soon.
3 and a half stars.