In 1995, the children’s book Jumanji (a 1981 picture book by Chris Van Allsburg) was adapted into an adventure film of the same name starring the late Robin Williams. Twenty-two years later, we have the semi-sequel Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, which is a reasonably enjoyable comedy/adventure with some likable performances.
After a prologue that explains why Jumanji is now a videogame instead of a board game, the film introduces its high school heroes: nerdy Spencer (Alex Wolff), his former best friend, football player Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain), popular girl Bethany (Madison Iseman), and shy Martha (Morgan Turner). They all end up thrown in detention together for various reasons and are tasked with cleaning up a school storage room. On a shelf, Fridge finds an old videogame system with one game inside: Jumanji. Uninterested in actually working, the kids decide to take a break and play the game. Immediately upon selecting their characters, they are literally sucked inside.
At this point, the charm of the movie’s premise kicks in. Each of them turns into the avatar they have chosen: nervous Spencer is now the heroic Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson, who had a busy 2017 between this, Baywatch, The Fate of the Furious and his HBO show Ballers), athletic Fridge becomes diminutive Moose Finbar (comedian Kevin Hart), Martha turns into the butt-kicking Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan, Nebula from the Guardians of the Galaxy franchise) and vain Bethany transforms into male Professor Shelly Oberon (Jack Black in his first appearance on the big screen since 2015’s Goosebumps).
The juxtaposition between their teenage personas and their avatars provides much of the film's laughs and all four leads are funny playing characters not comfortable in their new bodies. Without that hook, Jumanji would just be an average action/comedy about a group of adventurers saving a jungle from the evil Van Pelt (a wasted Bobby Cannavale, who provided a voice in last week’s Ferdinand). With it, it is pretty fun.
The screenplay (written by Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers (who were also among the writers of this year’s The LEGO Batman Movie and Spider-Man: Homecoming), Scott Rosenberg and Jeff Pinkner (co-writer of this summer’s The Dark Tower adaptation)) is pretty clever in the way it uses its premise. The first half is fun as they play around with some videogame conventions. I also appreciated how quickly they got to the end after the final action scene. No screwing around here. Unfortunately, most of the film’s second half drags. After introducing the concept and getting its characters into their new bodies, the movie settles in as a pretty routine action movie with only a handful of laughs. There are a couple of surprises that keep things going, but this section keeps the film from a more solid recommendation.
The casting, though a bit gimmicky, is a big reason Jumanji works as well as it does. Dwayne Johnson lightly satirizes his macho persona through Spencer’s scared-of-everything personality. Jack Black is very funny (and refreshingly low-key) as a teenage popular girl stuck in Jack Black’s body. Karen Gillan gets the least to do out of the four, but her reluctant action heroine act is largely effective. Kevin Hart is basically just playing the Kevin Hart role. He gets the most laughs, but is pretty much just playing the same character he always does. I grew tired of him as the film went on, but he absolutely has his moments. He and Johnson (in their second team-up after 2016’s Central Intelligence) have some pretty good comedic chemistry together.
Overall, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (110 minutes without the end credits) is a fun diversion during the holiday season. It has a good setup, an enjoyable cast and some pretty funny moments. Though it slows down substantially in its second half, the film does not overstay its welcome. It is certainly not essential viewing, but for a potential franchise-starting reboot of a two decades old movie based on a thirty-six year old children’s book, it is a little more original, and more entertaining, than I expected.
3¼ out of 5
Dwayne Johnson as Dr. Smolder Bravestone
Kevin Hart as Moose Finbar
Jack Black as Professor Shelly Oberon
Karen Gillan as Ruby Roundhouse
Nick Jonas as Alex
Alex Wolff as Spencer
Ser’Darius Blain as Fridge
Madison Iseman as Bethany
Morgan Turner as Martha
Rhys Darby as Nigel
Bobby Cannavale as Van Pelt
Directed by Jake Kasdan
Screenplay by Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers, Scott Rosenberg and Jeff Pinkner