Review: Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle 

Director: Jake Kasdan

Stars: Karen Gillan, Dwayne Johnson, Jack Black

21 years after Joe Johnston’s crowd-pleasing family film, was anybody actually asking for this? Belated sequels can be desperate cash-cows, especially those targeted to festive markets (Bad Santa 2 anyone?). Jumanji: Welcome To The Jungle is set at Christmas, though you wouldn’t know it for approximately 95% of its running time. When this finally becomes clear, one can’t help but wonder if this wasn’t an eleventh hour addition. “What’s that? We’re being released in late December? Set decorator!”

Thankfully – and a little remarkably – that sense of last-minute thinking doesn’t apply to the rest of the movie, which not only sits well in terms of quality when set beside Johnston’s film, but also manages to rekindle some of the simpler magic of 90’s family movies.

A brief scene-setter establishes that, at some point in 1996, the Jumanji board was discovered again, only to be discarded in favour of a video game. But the magical board wasn’t ready to gather dust, so transformed itself into a cartridge, suckering a new player into its mystical clutches. Flash to 2017 and a bunch of high-schoolers – who all identify as varying members of Welcome To The Jungle‘s new ‘breakfast club’ – find themselves in detention, clearing out a cluttered shed. It is here, for some reason, that the Jumanji video game is rediscovered. And these kids decide to play.

Selecting their characters, they are ported magically into the jungle environment of the game, and into the avatars they selected. Thus scaredy cat Spencer finds himself in the muscular visage of Dr Smoulder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson), quarterback star Fridge loses some of his height as sidekick Mouse Finbar (Kevin Hart), socially withdrawn Martha is recast as the Lara Croft-esque Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan), and Brantford’s wannabe social media starlet and most clueless mean girl Bethany becomes Professor Shelly Oberon (…Jack Black).

The conceit steals openly from both Tron and Avatar, but originality is of little concern to this flick, which spends a lot of its time sending up tropes, mostly those from the video game world. It’s an oft noted point that cinema has rarely (if ever) produced a truly successful video game adaptation. The irony of Welcome To The Jungle is that, well, this would be the best possible example so far, if only its source weren’t fictitious.

What follows is a four-way odd couple adventure movie, one that rekindles all the expected exotic dangers of the jungle previously encountered in the likes of the Indiana Jones series (and, yes, the first Jumanji), but viewed through a decidedly millennial gaze. Bethany really is lost without her phone.

The cast are a hoot together. Johnson’s reputation is given a wryly meta dimension as one of his character’s special moves is ‘smouldering intensity’; his very charm is a weapon. He plays well off of Gillan, who holds her own as a high-kicking bad-ass, her character wrestling to gain confidence. Hart does his usual thing, scampering around the group like a whiny firework, while Jack Black is effortlessly convincing as a disgusted fifteen year old girl. He might have wholesale stolen the show here, were the cast not so pleasingly well-matched. Against all odds, Welcome To The Jungle really comes into its own once these four get riffing with one another.

The remainder is, pretty much, exactly what you’d expect. Each character must overcome their own typified insecurity through the challenges pitted against them by the video game, the ‘levels’ get harder as they progress toward the end, there’s a MacGuffin jewel they have to return to a statue in order to get back to the real world.

The ferociousness of the jungle is more than enough of a challenge, so its disappointing to report that an under-cooked video game villain played by Bobby Cannavale is so ineffectual that I couldn’t even tell you his name without looking it up. That’s a shame, as Cannavale is often a treat, but here he is wholly superfluous. This group has more than enough to contend with in their quest; snakes, stampedes, bikers(?) and, err, cake are all out to get them.

It’s played for laughs, and you know what, it gets them. Director Jake Kasdan may have made his name with spurious ‘comedies’ (Sex Tape anybody?), but he has a solid cast and a robust script to work with here, and the funny moments more or less take care of themselves. As far as the adventure goes, the film hits a peak with a surprisingly white-knuckle helicopter ride that provides one of the year’s better action set pieces. It’s time to admit it… Jumanji: Welcome To The Jungle is… good.

This is well-rounded and fast paced family entertainment that stays safely within that remit and excels because of it. It has life lessons, sure, because it’s supposed to. It has comedy and action because that’s the point, idiot. It has kinda dodgy CG because, well, you can’t have everything (but it gains so much from location shooting; you hear that, Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull?).

One of my favourite things about the 1996 Jumanji is that it never explained itself at all. There was no cumbersome exposition to detail the mechanics of why. It didn’t need it and it was confident enough to know it. Welcome To The Jungle works in the same way. A flight of fancy isn’t fun because you’ve been given the correct back story (see again how unnecessary Cannavale’s character is). It’s about the ride. Jake Kasdan’s film is a good one. When it’s over, it’s over, but while it’s happening – once you get to the jungle (sorry kids at the beginning) – it’s a hoot. Simple as.

Score:  3

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