The return to a land of chance and consequence gets an upgrade in the form of a popular video game. In ‘Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle’, When four high-school kids discover an old video game console with a game they’ve never heard of: Jumanji, they are immediately drawn into the game’s jungle setting, literally becoming the avatars they chose: gamer Spencer becomes a brawny adventurer (Dwayne Johnson); football jock Fridge loses (in his words) “the top two feet of his body” and becomes an Einstein (Kevin Hart); popular girl Bethany becomes a middle-aged male professor (Jack Black); and wallflower Martha becomes a badass warrior (Karen Gillan). What they discover is that you don’t just play Jumanji; you must survive it. To beat the game and return to the real world, they’ll have to go on the most dangerous adventure of their lives, discover what Alan Parrish left 20 years ago, and change the way they think about themselves–or they’ll be stuck in the game forever… ‘Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle’ is directed by Jonathan Liebesman and Jake Kasdan, and is rated PG-13 for action, suggestive content, and some adult language.
Hell has officially frozen over. When you asked me what were the slimmest of possibilities for the 2017 movie year, the success for a Jumanji sequel over twenty years later would’ve been the last thing I predicted. Yet here I sit in complete shock that this action/adventure in the safari succeeded beyond my wildest expectations. ‘Welcome to the Jungle’ carves out its own respective chapter in the series, relying very little on extended hand that the 1995 Robin Williams original reaches out. Nope, instead Kasdan honors the original with subtle Easter eggs along the way, keeping the link between the two films at a bit of a distance, allowing this sequel to reach even higher with the creativity that it displays in carving out a completely different beast all together. To even make this a Jumanji film is completely unnecessary, but it works because it reminds us of the adventure in imagination that the original supplied us with, while harvesting a heartfelt message that hints that we only have one life at this thing. No extra lives, and certainly no continues.
At its heart, this is very much a Breakfast Club kind of set-up, in that these are four teenagers (Well, three. I’m not so sure about the actor playing Fridge) who would’ve never been seen together before they encountered a game that will alter their respective futures into becoming this family of sorts. Have we seen this approach before? Absolutely, but why it works here is because the film is very enriched in the teenage fantasy kind of ideal, trading out who they are for the bigger, better deal behind the curtain of curiosity. Once they have immersed themselves in their adult counterparts, the film becomes a video game film that follows the authenticity to a tee, sure to satisfy even the most hardcore gamers. There are extra lives, strategies, and even satire that pokes fun at the sheer lunacy of some of these game ideals. For the most part, this direction is full-proof, as there was very little that I found false about its presentation. Some of the scenes involving Bobby Cannivale’s antagonist seem unnecessary considering this is a story that revolves around this group exclusively. If they are going to show scenes with him on his own, maybe broadcast it in the sky so the characters can approach his evil ways in the same vein they would as a player. Otherwise, these scenes are pointless. The only other thing with the game world that I had a problem with was the graphics being a bit too modern age for this being an Atari-like console. They should’ve just supplanted the game and console with a modern structure, hammering home the reasons why the game looks so surreal, but instead we are given 70’s technology with a 2017 presentation that makes absolutely no sense in the bigger picture.
Much of the pacing is solid, even during the noticeably weak second act that attempts to hold our attention through some lengthy dry-spells of action. It’s nothing that is truly sacrificing in the bigger picture of the film’s finished product, but I wish the middle of this film focused more on the same dramatic tug of the heartstrings that Williams gave us in the original for being locked in a foreign land against his will for so long. There’s certainly a comparison with a surprising cameo character who I won’t give away, but the script never capitalizes fully on making us feel his pain for how much they have given up in being locked inside for twenty years. For my money, the finale really packed a tightly constructed punch that continued to raise the stakes with four different areas of character focus, respectively and never letting the excitement omit itself from the air of tension. When I checked the run time, I was surprised that this is nearly a two hour movie at 114 minutes, but because you are spending it in a film that requires you keep track of the life count, as well as the character strengths and weaknesses, you too will find that the film doesn’t just ask to engage you in its plan, but it forces you to.
The visual effects and C.G animal renderings are surprisingly well done, keeping the enthralling fast-paced action always finely tuned whether it’s on land or air. Because of its unlimited setting as opposed to the first film, there’s endless possibilities in the way that the actors and choreographers can approach each sequence, and thankfully nothing feels watered down with predictability in the grand scheme, giving way to some rising urgency and uncertainty with the developing terror that lurks around the corner that constantly kept me guessing. The animal properties here feel respectively distinguished and very in-sync with the lighting and live action properties around them, in which they respond with great detection. Probably not since ‘The Jungle Book’ have I been this impressed with what studios are doing in bridging the gap between live action and animation, and it makes me wonder what they could’ve done with the original film had they only waited to perfect it.
As for the collective ensemble, there are positives and negatives to this story. First of all, I commend everyone for having to not really only play one character, but two when you consider they must portray their badass alter-ego’s as well as their teenage origins. Because of this stance, some stand out more than others with the dedication to their craft. Jack Black is leaps and bounds away the best of the main four, playing Bethany with a mental tug-of-war between the nerdy middle aged scientist she inherited, and the teenage beauty queen she left behind. Black feels like he leaves his Hollywood personality the most in terms of appreciation for his character, but he’s not the only success story here. Dwayne Johnson also supplants us with some versatility in character traits that makes this something completely different than the roles over the last few years that he’s phoned in. The charismatic charm is still there, but Johnson gives in to his comic side by mimicking a teenage nerd with the focus that wouldn’t change in one day in a game world. My critiques rest with Gillian and Hart’s performances, but not so much their characters. As a female heroine, Gillian’s Martha is as satisfying and empowering as it gets. It’s more in her acting muscle where I felt slightly let down by one-note emotional responses that kept her limited in anything that wasn’t action. Hart plays himself. In fact, it was his character where I felt having the most difficult time remembering who he was in the real world, mainly because none of his jock personality carries over to his new body. It’s almost like he lets the limited tomb shield who he is as a person, and while Hart’s comic genius was greatly appreciated in a few good laughs, I need something different at this point from a guy who I know can do so much.
THE VERDICT – ‘Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle’ isn’t demeaning or damning of the original film that many look back on with nostalgic glee. It never settles to be anything of equal value, instead motivating itself to be better because of its talented cast and endless thrills that bring the fun back to the expedition subgenre that Indiana Jones left behind decades ago. Kasdan’s chapter swings through the trees with a pulse-setting roar, bringing to life the peak of the video game age with enough nuance for the aspects in gaming that 90’s multiplayer’s were known for. Plug in and plant yourself in front of the screen, it’s just the kind of distraction to remind us how fun movies can be again.