Let’s face it, Hollywood is creatively bankrupt. As much as I love movies, the people in charge of making said movies only want “sure things”, which means anything remotely original in concept scares them. As a result, nearly half of everything in your local theater is a sequel, remake, reboot, adaptation, and every other kind of production you can come up with to a pre-existing source material. Over the past two decades, we have had many sequels to movies whose last installments were anywhere between 20 and 30 years ago. Most of them are just nostalgia pops to get us aging Generation X’ers to long for the “good old days” or “simpler times”. But every once and a while, we get a decades later sequel at is legitimately good. “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” is thankfully of the latter kind of sequels.
Depending on who you are, the original “Jumanji” movie is either a nice little flick that you enjoyed as a child because it starred your favorite actor, Robin Williams (I fall under that category), but to others, it’s just that funny meme used to ask “what year is it”, based on all the 20 to 30 year old sequels and remakes that I was talking about before. I guess someone at Sony saw one of those memes and thought “Hey, let’s use this as an unironic attempt to breathe new life into one of our older franchises, some 20 years later!”. Except, unlike most sequels and remakes, which just retread all the highlights of the last installments of the franchises (I’m looking at you, “Jurassic World” and “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”), “Welcome to the Jungle” turns the original movie’s concept on its head, and shows us what happens to the players who are sucked into the game, rather than show what happens when creatures from the game enter our world.
For those of you who have no idea what I’m talking about, the original movie was about an enchanted board game (although it’s never fully explained how the board game came to be or why it exists). As you play the game, jungle animals and various other perils appear in our reality, or if you’re really unlucky, you get sucked into the game, and have to stay in the mystic jungle of Jumanji until you’re freed by another player. “Welcome to the Jungle” makes welcomed changes to the story by A). Turning the board game into a video game, thus giving a more modern take of the concept, and B). Having the adventure take place in the Jumanji jungle, giving us a more of an Indiana Jones style narrative. As an added bonus, the sequel is standalone (something I wish most tentpole movies were these days), and can be seen by itself, rather than a continuation of the first movie.
The movie starts more or less just like how the original movie ended, with the cursed board game being left on a sandy beach, and discovered by a random jogger. Said jogger brings the game home and gives it to his teenage son, but the kid is more into video games, so he doesn’t play it. Literally overnight, the board game transformers itself into an 64-bit era video game cartridge, so of course the teenager plays it (because logic be damned). Fast forward 20 years later, we follow four high school kids, Spencer, a nerd who is afraid of practically everything; “Fridge”, the school’s star football player; Bethany, the spoiled beauty queen who can’t go five second with her smartphone, and who lives in cropped tops (thank you, costume designers); and the loner nerd girl, Martha (the writers of “Murder Man vs Super Sad: Yawn of Just Us” would be so proud). Each student ends up in detention for various reasons, and on a side note, I don’t know which reason I relate to more, a teacher yelling at Bethany to get off her phone, or Martha complaining about how pointless physical education class is. As punishment, the students are sent into the bowels of the school to clean a storage closet, and it is there where they find the old console with the Jumanji cartridge within a donation bin. The students begin to play the game, and are sucked into it. Hopeless Spencer becomes a mountain of a man, Dr. Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson); popular jock Fridge becomes the puny Franklin “Mouse” Finbar (Kevin Hart); shy and quiet Martha becomes the Tomb Raider inspired Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan); and vain Bethany becomes the “overweight, middle-aged man”, Professor Sheldon “Shelly” Oberon (Jack Black). They are then given the task of bringing a gemstone known as the “Jaguar’s eye” back to its resting place, in order to win the game and return back to reality.
While the main concept of living within a video game is a good one, including such infamous aspects of video games like multiple lives, character strengths and weaknesses, narrative cutscenes, and non-player characters, but it’s the actors who really sell these ideas. Dwayne Johnson plays against type, as he is a wimp trapped in the body of an Adonis. He easily jumps from humor to heroics like it were a second nature, and remains charismatic throughout. Kevin Hart is more or less Kevin Hart, as he yells and screams whenever the situation gets dangerous, although surprisingly enough, he’s not the main source of the movie’s laughs. Karen Gillan cements herself as an actress who is as talented as she is beautiful. She does equal parts action heroine, physical comedy, and sex bomb, proving she can do anything from martial arts fights, to romantic comedy. And yes, on a side note, it is great to have a movie where we see the lead heroine showing off her flat tummy in a cropped top. It certainly makes up for a certain other actress not being aloud to rock out with her midriff out (I’m looking at you, Daisy Ridley). And then there’s Jack Black, and his whole woman stuck in the body of a man routine, which he manages to keep funny throughout the movie, with only a few lazy jokes related to having external genital.
The movie’s flaws and minor annoyances are at a bare minimum. The most annoying being that since it’s a Sony movie, there’s product placement galore, so every single piece of technology has the Sony logo plastered across it and in plain view for everyone to see. Bobby Cannavale plays a radically different version of Russell Van Pelt, one of the few human villains from the original movie. Cannavale is given an interesting look and he sells it well, but he’s really not given much to do his character, and just comes across as a generic McBad Guy. While the original Van Pelt was a characterture of a safari hunter, he seemed much more interesting and had a bigger vendetta against Robin Williams’ Alan Parrish from the first movie. Speaking of Williams’ Alan Parrish, there is a little homage to the character, which I liked. There’s one sequence that I didn’t particularly care for, in which the avatars stop to urinate. It made no sense to me, because why would video game avatars need to pee? Sure, there’s a scene where they mention needing to eat food in order to level up their health, but peeing, really? That, and the urinating scene serves no other purpose other than for Hart and Black to exchange dick jokes. If you’re into that kind of humor, it might make you laugh, otherwise, you’ll just be rolling your eyes like I did. There’s also an interesting dynamic in which Spencer and Martha briefly consider staying in the game and living as Bravestone and Ruby Roundhouse for the rest of their lives. However, this idea is only lasts for a fleeting moment, and I felt it could have been explored more, so that was a bit of a letdown. Lastly, the story can be very predictable at times. All the rules of the game are laid out, and once you commit them to memory, you can guess what’s going to happen next. I unfortunately sat next to a mother and son duo who were pretty much giving me color commentary every now and then, and they were spot-on about what was happening and what would soon happen. I think having to listen to them was a bigger letdown than the story being predictable.
Overall, “Welcome to the Jungle” is a fun ride, and at times, feels like a worthy throwback to the tentpole movies of the 90s that inspired it. I think the adventure taking place within a video game only helps you suspend your disbelief, and each actor’s strengths are played to their advantages, much like the avatars that they are portraying. Aside from a few curse words and jokes about male anatomy, the movie is family-friendly, so if you have kids, they can watch along with you. I give “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” a solid 4 out of 5 stars. If you’re in the mood for a breezy action/adventure movie, or you want a companion piece to the original “Jumanji” to watch back to back, then this is the movie for you. And yes, if you want to gaze upon the naked navels of Bethany and Ruby Roundhouse, there’s that, too. But that’s neither here nor there. Until next time, long live good movies.
Featured image: Movie poster.