There’s been a lot of criticism aimed at Hollywood’s habit of rebooting every franchise going. So eyebrows were suitably raised when it was announced that Sony was tackling a sequel to 90’s cult classic Jumanji. How could anyone recapture the spontaneous magic of the irreplaceable Robin Williams, or maintain the classical tone of the original, as its director, Joe Johnston, had already mastered?
Well, the lucky thing with Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is that it does not try to replicate what has come before. Instead, with its varied and versatile cast of Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson, Kevin Hart, Karen Gillan and Jack Black, along with a storyline that cleverly reverses the original’s premise to suit its own updated needs, this sequel simply seeks to entertain on its own two feet, with some crackling chemistry and hilarious gags that will keep you pleasingly engaged for its two-hour runtime.
To quickly get you up to speed, for those of you who aren’t familiar with the original, ‘Jumanji’ is a board game unlike any other: it comes to life through inexplicably mystical and magical means, for better or most definitely for worse. With Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, we get a similar story. Except this time, it’s updated to modern day: the board game has now transitioned into the three-dimensional realm of video games. What’s more, rather than invade the participants’ world, this new brand of Jumanji absorbs its players into its own treacherous domain, as they seek to conquer its many levels in the hopes of returning to the real world.
Who are these players, I hear you ask? Well, in the film’s introduction, we meet Spencer (Alex Wolff), Bethany (Madison Iseman), Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain) and Martha (Morgan Turner), who, through unlikely circumstances, end up together, testing out a dusty copy of the eponymous game. Once sucked into the game world, they each take on a new form: those of Dr. Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson), Professor Sheldon Oberon (Jack Black), Moose Finbar (Kevin Hart) and Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan), respectively.
It’s in this premise – the archetypal body-swap set-up of films like Freaky Friday – that the film really comes into its own. Rather than re-hash the successful plot of the original, this new incarnation decides to up its game by incorporating some layered characterisation – literally in this case – thus encouraging its actors to deliver some complex comedic performances through their confused circumstances. If anyone had any fear that this sequel would lack inspiration, then these performances are surely going to have you biting your tongue. Jack Black as a phone-obsessed ‘pretty girl’, fascinated by her newly-possessed male genitalia? Check. Ex-wrestler Dwayne Johnson as a nerdy teenage hypochondriac with girl issues? Check. These are just two examples of the kind of clever casting we see on display here. It helps that the actors deliver in their roles, providing something fresh and humorous, on a visual and narrative level: just cogitating on the image of a skinny geek, suddenly trapped within the form of a toned bodybuilder, is enough to get one giggling.
Furthermore, on a narrative level, by setting the story within the confines of a videogame, the film opens itself up to a playground of tricks and tics that the writers no doubt had fun with. From gags based on a character’s strengths and weaknesses, to a subtle stab at exposition through the reference to a ‘cutscene’ that tells our band of heroes, and subsequently us, the important information we need to know, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle isn’t afraid to go a little meta and it’s all the better for it.
So much so that its emphasis on crazy, over-the-top action is in fact welcome, as applicable as it is to the wonderfully wacky world that has been established. Rather than appear ridiculous for the sake of dumbing down the audience’s response, the action weaves itself into the character’s arcs, fulfilling their real-life fantasies and giving them a chance to reflect on whether these fantasies will have the same worth in the real world. The more Martha kicks ass as Ruby Roundhouse, the more she wonders whether this will affect how Spencer, Bethany and Fridge judge her in real life. As many times as Spencer saves others, he shows concern for how this contradicts with his own reclusive personality. Yeah, maybe I’m overselling it: this is not a Kenneth Lonergan movie. But it still goes above and beyond the likes of The Rock’s own Fast & Furious franchise, by at least engaging with the characters in relation to its silly adventure antics.
However, despite its clever utilisation of action, performance and its narrative concepts, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle disappoints when it comes to its use of computer animation, and its portrayal of the big bad. The CGI just doesn’t stack up here: a number of the grander reveals ultimately sink due to the inherent graphic blurriness of some of the effects. Furthermore, Bobby Cannavale, as devilish explorer John Hardin, has absolutely nothing to do other than growl and grimace grimly at the camera. It’s a shame, because the villain trope could have offered another opportunity to challenge the characters in their journey towards their individual end goals. Yet it just comes off as an obligatory inclusion that feels forced and distracting.
These problems don’t seriously mar the overall experience however. I had a blast with Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, with its humour and action coaxing out a great grin from myself and those audience members around me. Rather than settling for the ‘bigger is better’ philosophy, this sequel decides to step it up a qualified notch, incorporating clever character dynamics and interesting twists on atypical narrative techniques that polish off its appearance as dumb fun entertainment. One can’t accuse the film of pushing any boundaries. But it certainly has a try at being a little more daring and thoughtful in its approach than your average blockbuster.