1995 fantasy-adventure film Jumanji – an adaptation of Chris Van Allsburg’s ‘81 children’s book of the same name – didn’t exactly receive widespread love from the critics, but it earned a healthy $US262.7 million worldwide and struck a chord with young audiences. A fun concept and Robin Williams’ usual charismatic turn were arguably two of the film’s strongest assets; now, seeing as the concept itself isn’t particularly mind-blowing these days and Williams is sadly no longer with us, can a 22-years-later sequel recapture that spark? The answer, for many, may come down to just how much they respond to the new film’s leads.
Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle finds Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Jack Black and Karen Gillan playing the video game avatars for four teenagers: Spencer (Alex Wolff), Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain), Bethany (Madison Iseman) and Martha (Morgan Turner) respectively. Yep, the board game aspect of the first film has been updated to a video game. To the film’s credit, it’s an update that seems natural enough, seeing as the mystical game that is Jumanji evolves and does what it must to entice “players” to its trap-filled world.
The avatars are, of course, complete opposite physical types to their real-world counterparts. Spencer is actually a slim “geeky” type, but in Jumanji he’s a muscle-bound, smouldering hero with arms as impressive as his skill set. Fridge, as the name suggests, is a buff high school jock, but he’s… let’s say, smaller in stature in the game world; cue Hart cracking jokes about his height… again. Martha is also of the nerdier type; her video game avatar is a Lara Croft-esque heroine with tight shorts and a crop top. The best avatar character crossover has to be that given to Bethany, a selfie-loving, seemingly self-absorbed popular girl who finds herself transported into the body of an overweight middle-aged man. As the latter, Black jumps right in and delivers some of the film’s funniest moments, clearly relishing the opportunity to tap into his inner teen gal.
Our unlikely team is forced to put aside their differences and come together to return the “Jaguar’s Eye” to its rightful place and thus find a way out of this world. Plot wise, it’s very simple stuff, which isn’t necessarily a criticism, but when you have a highly simple canvas, you’d hope that the creatives take the liberty to deliver more originality and excitement.
Therein lies the biggest issue with Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle: it doesn’t quite take advantage of the freedom inherent in its own concept. We’re in a video game world; go nuts! Save for an enjoyable helicopter & rhino stampede sequence, the sequences are highly familiar. Still, the narrative does offer up entertaining enough family fare, even if a frustrating level of safeness plagues the proceedings.
Director Jake Kasdan (Bad Teacher, Sex Tape) keeps it all moving along within the confines of a safe (there’s that word again) and confident studio picture; not much personality to speak of, but adequate enough to get the job done. Smartly, Kasdan banks on his stars to drive the film, which would suffer greatly without their charm. Screenwriters Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers, Scott Rosenberg and Jeff Pinker craft some nice moments for our leads to showcase their charisma and chemistry, although there’s little room for anything too memorable or original. Plus, the “keep it kid-friendly” restraint of a family film can occasionally be felt as cruder jokes ache to come through.
Johnson and Hart proved they had strong chemistry in 2016’s Central Intelligence and they once again bounce off each other nicely. The two are certainly playing “characters” here, but make no mistake; these parts are easily in their wheelhouse. Gillan proves to be a strong female lead and is given a nice balance of humour and physicality to play with. It’s worth mentioning that Nick Jonas puts in an adequate performance in his part, but his role seems to often be lost in the shadows of his co-stars. But it’s Black, as mentioned before, that steals the show again and again.
Perhaps Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle doesn’t make a convincing enough argument for its existence, but thanks to its charismatic cast and a nice sense of momentum, it still offers families a diverting enough time at the movies. Undemanding adult audiences should find some fun here, and I can imagine that a good number of younger viewers will enjoy themselves. You never know, in another twenty-something years, when Jumanji 3 circles, perhaps there will be another age group worried about a film smudging their childhood favourite.