Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (2017)
The game has evolved.
If you were a 90’s kid, it’s more than likely you saw the hit fantasy-adventure film Jumanji (1995) either at the theater or eventually on video — perhaps multiple times. Featuring a bright new star in young Kirsten Dunst, The Beguiled (2017), a very popular headliner in Robin Williams, Night at the Museum (2006), some ground-breaking CGI work and a spirited pace — the movie captained by director Joe Johnston, Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) — it was a great all-rounder.
With its central premise of a safari-themed boardgame thrusting its hapless victims into playing a deadly real-world game, it always seemed a bit odd that a follow-up was never fully realized. Sure, there was the weirdly drawn animated series that ran from 1996 to 99, and Zathura: A Space Adventure (2005), a ‘spiritual sequel’ with a similar concept from the same author as the Jumanji picture book, Chris Van Allsburg, but never a live-action return to the jungle. Until now …
Picking up from where the cursed plaything was last seen — on a beach, circa 1996 — the wooden set soon evolves in an effort to gain the attention of a videogame-loving teenager named Alex Vreeke (Mason Guccione), transforming into a 16-bit cartridge then sucking him into its lethal forestry domain. Cut to twenty years later, and Alex’s mysterious disappearance is still talked about in hush tones like an urban legend.
At the local high school, four teenagers end up in detention — there’s Spencer Gilpin (Alex Wolff), a nerdy type who’s been caught writing essays for his former best bud Anthony ‘Fridge’ Johnson (Ser’Darius Blain), who’s now a football jock; Martha Kaply (Morgan Turner), a shy introvert who talks back to a P.E. teacher; and then there’s Bethany Walker (Madison Iseman), a self-absorbed, smartphone-obsessed pretty-girl who makes a video call during a test.
It’s not long before this odd bunch find an old console with the Jumanji game cartridge still stuck in it, boot it up and get thrown into a jungle where they now resemble their chosen on-screen avatars — Spencer is a tanked-up explorer named Dr. Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson), Fridge is Franklin ‘Moose’ Finbar (Kevin Hart), a dweebish zoologist, Martha is a sexy ‘killer of men’ commando called Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan), and Bethany has become an overweight, male cartographist who goes by the name of Professor ‘Shelly’ Oberon (Jack Black).
From there, our heroes are quickly given a brief overview of the game by one of its NPCs (non-playable characters), Nigel (Rhys Darby), who tasks them with restoring the order of the land by retrieving ‘The Jaguar’s Eye’ — re-placing the stolen sacred jewel back into a giant Jaguar statue somewhere across a savage maze of trees and traps, whereupon they can return to normality. Easy, right? Trouble is, each of the players only have three regenerating lives, after which, they may actually die, and the big bad, Van Pelt (Bobby Cannavale), has the prized trinket in his possession, which gives him dominion over Jumanji’s animals along with a band of hardened mercenaries. With the elements truly against them, all four players will need to support one another and ‘play’ to their strengths if they wish to survive and make it back home in one piece.
It’s really refreshing at this time of year to see a live-action adventure that’s light on its feet and good-natured, while still featuring some decent action, a few laughs and a charismatic cast, all wrapped in a family friendly PG rating. Think about the last time audiences were treated with a movie like this, and more importantly, did it work?
For families, the film landscape at the moment is dominated by CG animated comedies and PG-13 blockbuster heroics, leaving little in between. I’m really grateful that executive producer-director Jake Kasdan seemed to inherently acknowledge this, catering for a similar demographic to that of the original movie whilst giving the formula a bit of a fresh take, Kasdan not really dipping into the cruder humor he’s known for across such films as Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story (2007), Bad Teacher (2011) and Sex Tape (2014). (Okay, I’ll admit, there are a couple of dick jokes with Bethany in Professor Oberon’s body, but they’re actually contextually earned). The overall vibe of the picture is that of a lost relic from the noughties, but I don’t necessarily mean that in a bad way, just in that we don’t see too many flicks like this these days.
Fun is the name of the game here. Tonally it’s spot-on, with the key cast partly parodying their own personas and physicality while still finding moments to tap into their teenage characters’ ticks. Jack Black, Goosebumps (2015), goes to town on bimbo culture, stealing the show multiple times, only to be out-done in a hilarious sequence by a very game and awkward Karen Gillan, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017), during an impromptu seduction class. Dwayne Johnson seems to genuinely enjoy playing up his goofier side and there are times where one can easily imagine his ‘real world’ counterpart (Alex Wolff) and his wide-eyed wonder hiding behind that chiseled face. Funnily, this is the second film featuring Johnson called Welcome to the Jungle, the other (from his early acting days back in 2003) also known as The Rundown in a few territories, and then there’s another magical adventure yarn, Journey 2: The Mysterious Island (2012), sharing a similar feel. Clearly The Rock digs the jungle!
If there’s one letdown in the cast, it’s Kevin Hart, who played against Johnson in last year’s Central Intelligence (2016). Here, Hart doesn’t seem all that interested in showing his teenage persona — he’s simply just being himself — and that’s a shame, because a good portion of the humor relies on the idea that the younger cast are now in ironic stand-in bodies — the quiet geek is a bulked-up strongman, the shy, self-conscious bookworm is a sexy mid-riff baring martial artist, the school stunner is her worst, least attractive nightmare, and the sport-star is a short, weak, study-centric animal expert. There’s maybe one scene where Hart threatens to ‘beat up’ The Rock and it almost seems plausible, but other than that, it’s all missed opportunities. To be fair, Bobby Cannavale, Ant-Man (2015), is pretty so-so too, but his villain is intentionally one-dimensional — after all, he is a simple in-game antagonist. ‘Heart-throb’ Nick Jonas, Camp Rock (2008), also appears late in the game as pilot extraordinaire Jefferson Seaplane McDonough, who reveals the fate of poor Alex Vreeke from all those years ago.
On the action front, there’s plenty about, from vehicle chases to old-fashioned smack-downs, and yes, even another CG stampede. Kasdan keeps it all going rather swiftly and the screenwriting team consisting of Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers, Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017), Scott Rosenberg, Gone in Sixty Seconds (2000), and Jeff Pinkner, The Dark Tower (2017), seem to have relished in coming up with game-type hints and silly challenge scenarios — such as a moment where the team confront a snake in an effort to obtain a vital clue in their quest for completion. Viewers won’t be wracking their brains over any deep themes or mysteries, but that’s just the very idea — if filmmakers had attempted to be any more intensive, we’d be talking about an entirely different experience.
Technically, the sound design by Jon Title, Ghost in the Shell (2017), is a stellar one, perfectly balancing the dialogue, effects and music in a manner that never overwhelms but is always super dynamic. Owen Paterson, Captain America: Civil War (2016), keeps things relatively simple with the production design, highlighting a few elements such as the mountainous Jaguar head in broad strokes, leaving much of the scope to the natural beauty of Hawaii — where the film was shot. While I saw the flick in 2D, there are enough sequences as realized by cinematographer Gyula Pados, Predators (2010), that would benefit from the 3D conversion; heck, if you’re going the whole hog, even 4D — think free-falling from the sky, fierce animals pouncing and confronting our heroes, water splashing about and a wild helicopter whirl.
If you’re looking to escape by means of a brisk, undemanding ride, without too much thematic weight, and a good dose of old-school charm, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is just the adventurous ticket this season, the film honoring what came before while remaining novel and exciting. *Cue the throbbing drumbeat*
3.5 / 5 – Great
Reviewed by Steve Ramsie