Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle Film Review
If only every recycled movie franchise was this much fun.
Moviegoers who don’t want their precious childhood movie-memories spoiled by sub-par remakes and belated sequels haven’t taken umbrage with Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle. If they did, their voices were probably swallowed up by the deluge of dissenters from Rian Johnson’s (really very excellent) new Star Wars movie. With the announcement of the new Jumanji there wasn’t quite the rabid outrage inspired by 2016’s Ghostbusters, even though Jumanji is a beloved classic and an iconic role for Robin Williams.
Moviegoers also might have become desensitised to Hollywood’s habit dredging up of every single 80s and 90s franchise to re-present in these weird hybrid sequel/remake/reimaginings, one of which is what you could call director Jake Kasdan’s latest.
In this case, I’m totally okay with it. Jumanji: WttJ is a whole lot of fun, serving as a pretty clever upending of the typical ‘crew of mismatched personalities fighting bad guys in the jungle’ trope.
At least, the middle chunk is. At the beginning we’re introduced to Spencer (Alex Wolff) as a gamer and essay-writing whizz kid. When he gets a text from ‘Fridge’ (Ser’Darius Blain), he quickly dashes out the remainder of a history essay conclusion and skips out the door. This is right after his mum (Marin Hinkle) spouts off a few helicopter parent clichés so quickly it’s as if she’s played by a barely functioning MumBot instead of a human being.
Chris Mckenna and the other five screenwriters establish all their archetypes this poorly. ‘Fridge’ is a jock and an ex-best friend of Spencer, a nerd who now does the jock’s homework. Bethany (Madison Iseman) is a self-absorbed selfie-taker and Martha (Morgan Turner) is the snarky anti-cool girl who refuses to participate in lame sport-based activities. They all wind up in detention, where they find an old videogame called Jumanji and get sucked into the TV ala Alan Partridge (Adam Hann-Byrd) in the original.
The kids are pretty rubbish, but they’re admittedly given the least compelling elements of the movie to work with. I blame adult male screenwriters who can’t write teenage millennials worth a darn. All of this ceases to matter as soon as they enter the jungle and Martha, Spencer, Bethany and ‘Fridge’ are supplanted by Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan), Dr Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson) Professor Shelly Oberon (Jack Black) and Franklin ‘Mouse’ Finbar (Kevin Hart).
From this point on, the movie feels like a proper blockbuster. When the camera lingers on Johnson’s clean, bald head and mountainous biceps, you feel as if a real movie star is taking control. Jack Black’s performance ranks with his extraverted Dewey in School of Rock and his eccentric Bernie in Bernie as the very un-outdoors-y Bethany inside an ‘overweight, middle-aged man’ and Karen Gillan has wicked comic timing. A scene in which she tries to act flirty in an attempt to distract a couple of guards is pure screwball comedy. The script acknowledges Ruby Roundhouse’s impractically skimpy outfit, suggesting the screenwriters think they’re self-aware, but any half-awake audience member is going to see through this as an attempt to have some scantily clad cake and eat it too. Kevin Hart plays Kevin Hart (yet again), but it works, because Kevin Hart is funny. I challenge anyone to stifle a laugh when he starts ranting about his character’s in-game attributes, in which ‘Strength’ is his character’s ‘Weakness’.
There’s a near-pointless plot about a stolen Jumanji stone, a thunderously boring villain played by Bobby Cannavale and some pretty rushed CGI sequences featuring stampeding rhinos and would-be-scary-if-they-were-real spiders, but this sort-of-sequel has enough tricks up its sleeve to keep things interesting. The four leads establish an infectious chemistry (immediately sapped when they turn back into underwritten teens) and the screenplay’s jibes at videogame clichés are a delight. NPCs (non-player characters) like the affable guide Nigel (Rhys Darby) babble on in pre-programmed responses and each character has three lives, putting a nice spin on the usual bullet-dodging heroes, killing each of them off a few times for laughs.
Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is great fun. It’s what Pirates of the Caribbean used to be and what Thor: Ragnarok supposedly was for everyone except me. The leads are great, the jokes are clever and the good bits are good enough so you won’t notice the bad bits. More movies like this, please.