VOD film review: Jumanji: Welcome To The Jungle
Mark Harrison | On 18, Apr 2018
Director: Jake Kasdan
Cast: Dwayne Johnson, Jack Black, Karen Gillan, Kevin Hart, Joe Jonas, Bobby Cannavale
No one would have bet on a belated sequel to Jumanji being one of the biggest box office hits of 2017, especially when it went toe-to-toe with Star Wars: The Last Jedi on its pre-Christmas release date. But more than just cashing in on latent nostalgia for the 1990s Robin Williams vehicle, Jumanji: Welcome To The Jungle successfully nails down its own tone. That tone happens to be completely different to its predecessor, but it still does a bang-up job of inverting the premise and turning it into a comedy.
In the initial backlash to the sequel being announced, much was made of the plan to make Jumanji a video game instead of a board game, but there’s a much-underrated horror quality to this mischievous artefact adapting itself to torment successive generations. In a cold open of sorts, we catch up with the game after the first film, transforming itself into a classic game cartridge to ensnare the unwitting teen who picks it up.
Some years later, we meet a ragtag group of high school misfits, who land themselves in detention through a variety of separate infractions, and play the game while bored. Transported inside Jumanji, they’re transformed into the video game avatars each of them chose – nerdy Spencer (Alex Wolff) becomes hulking Dr. Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson), football player Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain) becomes diminutive Mouse (Kevin Hart), shy Martha becomes ass-kicking Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan), and shallow queen bee Bethany (Madison Iseman) becomes hairy archaeologist Sheldon Oberon (Jack Black.)
While the first film represents some of Williams’ most understated work for a family audience, the sequel seizes his performance as a child in a grown-up’s body and gives it an extra fantastical twist for comedic purposes. On top of that, it gathers an enviable comic ensemble and puts them through the motions of a fast and funny adventure story.
Starring in the second film of his career with Welcome To The Jungle in the title, Johnson gets the lion’s share of the character development as a painfully awkward nerd who’s suddenly become very physically capable. His mega-watt “smouldering charisma” is on full blast here. Although he’s funny, he’s easily upstaged by both Gillan and Black – the former’s insecurity and exasperation at suddenly being ginger Lara Croft makes her more than a match for Johnson in their scenes together, and the latter’s performance as an Insta-obsessed teenage girl never stops being hysterical for the entire duration. Of the main quartet, Hart runs out of stuff to do the quickest, because, as in Central Intelligence, he’s largely played off Johnson, and it’s not a two-hander this time around.
While the 1990s animated series of Jumanji took place inside the jungle, the sequel is in new territory for the movies, and it moves along entertainingly, between wild animals, video game jokes, and problem-solving set pieces that look a bit like a higher-stakes and higher-budget version of The Crystal Maze. There’s a fun subplot with Joe Jonas’ Jumanji veteran, but Bobby Cannavale’s villain is distinctly undistinctive. It’s just as good, but different from its predecessor, except that it sure takes its time over getting going.
While the video game twist was initially criticised as simplistic, it winds up making the film longer than it needs to be. The script (which is credited to four different writers, after being rushed into development in 2015) ends up taking pains to explain the video game references to both the older adults, and to the younger kids, whose frame of reference no longer includes “three lives” and “levels”. (Bizarrely, the film’s trailer got these ideas across more economically than the film does.)
Jumanji: Welcome To The Jungle is a wildly funny and weirdly baggy sequel, and there can be no doubt that it’s significantly elevated by its cast. Still, it’s endearing, not least in the way that it ends with no obvious anticipation of a Jumanji cinematic universe to come. Its unexpected blockbuster success has now made that all but certain, but there’s an unassuming quality to this raucous romp, which seems to have only been made for a fun time, that makes it worth a watch, whether you love the original or not.