Directed by: Jake Kasdan/2017
As this is an “After the Show” review, it means that it may contain spoilers for the film, assuming that many have already seen it. Just be aware of this as you read, especially if you do not want to have anything spoiled by the movie.
The original Jumanji of 1995 is now remembered as a beloved classic, especially as we fondly remember the involvement of Robin Williams as Alan Parrish, the young boy who disappeared into the board game of Jumanji for over 20 years before emerging in the then modern world of 1995 to finish the game he started.
The new film begins in 1996, one year after the original where the board game is discovered on a beach by a jogger who brings the game home for his son to play. The son, who scoffs that nobody plays board games anymore, goes back to playing his video game system as he throws Jumanji on a shelf. That night, the board game wisely realizes it must change if it is going to ensnare a new generation, and when we next hear the sound of drums enticing young Alex (Nick Jonas) to play, he discovers a Nintendo-like video game cartridge inside. Like young Alan Parrish, Alex disappears into the game leaving a devastating family behind.
Fast forward 21 years later and we are introduced to 4 high schoolers who all find themselves in detention for various reasons. There is Spencer (Alex Wolff-Patriot’s Day), a self-proclaimed nerd who is busted for writing an English paper for his former childhood friend Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain-Camp X-Ray), a high school football star who needs the grade to stay on the team.
Both find themselves joined by Martha (Morgan Turner-Invinciable), a brainiac who insults her gym coach for making her do physical education, which she doesn’t see as important for her Princeton-bound aspirations. Finally, there is Bethany (Madison Iseman-Still the King), a self-absorbed selfie-posting princess who won’t stop a FaceTime chat during a quiz.
They of course discover the donated Jumanji video game in the storage room of the school where they have been assigned to clean and prepare it for a new computer lab. They start the game, picking an avatar before all are sucked into the game system, much like Alex, and Alan Parrish into the board game before him.
As they arrive inside the game, they now appear as their character’s avatars that they chose. Spencer now is Dwayne Johnson (The Fate of the Furious), Fridge is Kevin Hart (Ride Along, Central Intelligence), Bethany is Jack Black (School of Rock, Kung-Fu Panda), and Martha is Karen Gillan (Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2). Like most video games, they are introduced to their objectives. They meet a character named Nigel (Rhys Darby-Flight of the Conchords, What We Do in the Shadows), who gives them, and us the basic synopsis which involves the evil Van Pelt (Bobby Cannavale-I, Tonya and Ant-Man) stealing a jewel that controls the animals of Jumanji and wielding its power. They must get the jewel, and return it to its proper place to set all things right.
The rest of the film plays out exactly as you would expect from the trailers, with Jack Black outshining his other co-stars, as he plays the self-obsessed Bethany who finds herself in the avatar character of a portly, older man after mistakenly choosing a character based on a poor assumption of the character’s description on the game menu. Instead of being the beautiful bombshell she is used to being, she finds that this role has now fallen to Martha whose avatar is dressed much like Lara Croft from Tomb Raider.
The avatars are used to address their deeper character flaws, and provide the comedic opportunities in the film. Each has their moments, of course, but Black is the funniest of the bunch. Kevin Hart now fully embraces his shortness, a comedic theme used against him in every other film he has done, and laments the whole movie what happened to the 2 feet of his stature that he lost when he was Fridge in High School, compared to his avatar character in the game. Karen Gillan has some of the best action scenes of the film, besides Dwayne Johnson who is meant to be the star, but actually gets upstaged a bit.
The film is fun enough, though it drags unnecessarily at various times throughout its runtime. Fortunately, it doesn’t set itself up as a remake, but keeps the Robin Williams version, as well as his character’s legacy intact as this new team navigates the Jumanji world, where traces of Alan Parrish’s life while trapped there are discovered. By serving as a sequel of sorts, along with accomplishing the studio’s intended rebooting of the Jumanji brand, the new Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle mostly accomplishes what it sets out to do which is introducing itself to a new generation, while not alienating the fans of the original. Of course, individual mileage may vary.
The big disappointment for me was that there were no real cameos from the original Jumanji cast like Bonnie Hunt, Kirsten Dunst, Bradley Pierce, or David Alan Grier. This easily could have been been added as a nice Easter egg at least. There are also no end credit scenes or outtake/blooper-reel playing with the credits which you’d expect with Johnson, Hart, and Black who probably had lots of fun working together.
Overall, this is a film that is doing well-enough at the box office based on its on-screen talent being a bigger draw than the film itself. The film does enough to ensure they’ll probably jump back into this world at some point. Whether it gets a sequel with this cast remains to be seen, as there would really be no reason to go back into the game once you have defeated it. By making Jumanji a video game, it opened up the world a bit from the previous board game version of it. But also, by making it a video game with a set storyline, they also took much of the mystery away from the players of the game, and as a result those of us watching them.