I can’t believe it! It’s actually good. The new “Jumanji” movie is actually pretty good! Sorry I just had to get that off my chest. Following up the legendary 90s nostalgia film “Jumanji” from 1995 this standalone sequel had a lot of buzz, both positive and negative, around it for nearly two years leading up to its premier. To my delight and shock this adventurous fantasy film packs a punch and works as both an kid friendly tribute to video game culture and an adult friendly comedy. Let’s take a closer look at what I consider probably the biggest surprise quality film of 2017. Here is my review of “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle”.
“Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” picks up 20 years after the “Jumanji” board game claims another player when it transforms into a video game console to fit more modern game trends. After 20 years four very different students, nerdy gamer Spencer (Alex Wolff), pretty girl Bethany (Madison Iseman), football jock Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain) and bookworm Martha (Morgan Turner), discover the game in detention and find themselves sucked into the game to play it for real. In the world of “Jumanji” they take the form of the avatars they chose. Spencer becomes archeologist Dr. Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson), Bethany becomes cartographer Sheldon Oberon (Jack Black), Fridge becomes zoologist Mouse Finbar (Kevin Hart), and Martha becomes commando Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan). Together with the help of a mysterious fourth player as Seaplane McDonough (Nick Jonas) the players must win “Jumanji” to escape the game before losing all three of their individual allotted lives in the process.
“Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” is actually maybe a bit more into the actual “game” concept than its predecessor was, playing heavily off of video game tropes without leaning too heavily on the theme and letting it limit the possibilities of the world the players have entered. The result is a very entertaining and well thought out adventure with well-developed characters and some insanely hilarious moments giving “Welcome the the Jungle” a very unexpected natural charm.
“Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” does not play out as a true sequel to the original film, but it is a standalone story that holds its own quite well. Adapted for a more modern audience, the new “Jumanji” game incorporates many different video game staples including non-playable characters, levels, and strengths and weaknesses for its various avatars. Impressively enough the filmmakers chose to downplay these aspects of the story just enough to make them feel natural but embrace them enough to make this feel like a true video game come to life. Also the film leans less on the random threats of the previous movie and more on how the adventure of “Jumanji” evolved with the new format, showcasing a more chaotic world on its own. I actually feel like “Jumanji” fits much better as a video game. The threats seem more real and the fact that the players only have three lives adds to the risks of playing the game. With all do respect to a movie that helped define my childhood, dare I say “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” is not only much more fitting of the format of a game come to life, I also dare to say it’s actually a better film overall.
The young cast that plays the real world version of the players do not get a lot of screen time, but all four actors manage to invest enough into their characters to give them individual personalities that translate well into the second half of the cast that make up their avatars. Dwayne Johnson, Jack Black, Karen Gillan, and Kevin Hart are the true stars of the show here and each one perfectly embraces the against-type approach to their characterizations within the game. Jack Black for example provides a spot on take on Bethany’s real world personality without going overboard with his “guy being a girl” character. Kevin Hart captures Fridge’s sarcasm to a T while Dwayne Johnson plays off of his own immense size as a hypochondriac nerd who now finds himself the panicle of physical perfection. Finally Karen Gillan’s take on a dorky bookworm who is suddenly sexy and tough pays off immensely showing some unforeseen comedic timing and range from the still fresh face to mainstream audiences. All four have amazing chemistry on screen as well making for a very complete cast that truly brings this adventure to life.
Aside for their individual charming performances I was amazed to find myself picturing the real world kids who are playing the game within each of these characters. I could truly see these avatars overlaying the real people they represent which is a compliment to both the actors within the game and the character development of the real-life teenagers playing the game. Honestly the fact that both sets of actors were able to create such consistent representations of one character in two different forms was one of the most impressive parts of this film. It’s a compliment to the acting ability of both performers playing each character. This is where the film could have gone horribly wrong, but surprisingly it is where the film shines the most in my humble opinion.
Aside from great acting and being an entertaining action adventure “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” is also an unexpectedly hilarious comedy filled with frankly very adult-themed jokes. Somehow this film incorporated sexual humor, usually any comedy film’s unfortunate sellout crutch, and adult themes into its plot without those jokes feeling out of place or inappropriate. One of the biggest running jokes is Jack Black showing amazement at his…well man parts seeing as he is a young teen girl in the real world. Despite the fact that these jokes remain throughout the film they never feel old and every time a familiar joke is repeated it still feels fresh and brings a smile to viewers faces. It might not be the most family friendly comedy by any means, but it all works to perfection just the same.
Another positive for the film is that is managed to balance some real-world themes with its action and comedy, although I must say this is probably the weakest element of the adventure. While the film does embrace some nice, kid-friendly themes about embracing who you are, being willing to take chances in one’s life and being more open minded these themes are very much overshadowed by all the action and suspense of the game playing out before us. Still the movie has a respectable moral core made even more enjoyable by the incredible characterizations of its main players who each come to grips with their own faults and insecurities over time. As I said, it’s far from the strongest aspect of the movie and even kind of bogs the story down a bit at times but what emotional depth there is in this story pays off regardless.
The biggest downside to “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” however is its villain. Bobby Cannavale plays an updated version of Van Pelt, the same explorer that haunted Alan Parish in the first film. Unlike his previous incarnation, which contained personality and some truly threatening character traits, this new Van Pelt proves to be a pretty lackluster villain lacking the same charisma and memorability of his predecessor. This might be by design considering that villains in video games are often underdeveloped but of all the blatant video game clichés purposefully built into the film this one possible trope they chose to adapt doesn’t work well on screen because it makes Van Pelt rather pathetic and bland. He’s an uninspired villain given little life outside of the creepy creatures that crawl in and out of his body and without spoiling much I can safely explain that his minions prove to be very little threat to the three lives each player has to spare. Jumanji itself as a jungle is actually more threatening than the main villain and ironically as result this movie suffers from the same sin as many video games do, a great story and great user characters but a forgettable villain that serves as the only major stain in an otherwise very complete project.
To conclude, I was genuinely shocked by how good “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” really was. As an indirect sequel this film not only does justice to the legacy of “Jumanji” but also builds on the game’s possibilities, updating the concept for a new audience and even surpassing the previous movie in many ways. It’s funny, it’s fun and the acting is just incredibly consistent. Anyone who immediately said they didn’t want to give this film a chance because of the nostalgia of the first film should really consider giving it a chance. This is a truly solid film and one that feels necessary and was obviously approached with a true commitment of doing more than just living off its classic source material’s legacy. It proves to be a great movie all on its own, although it does have its faults. Nonetheless this film was a pleasant surprise and for me personally it’s probably the one movie I was truly, honestly shocked to find myself enjoying as much as I did in 2017