In recent movie history, we’ve seen our fair share of remakes, reboots, re-imaginings, and repackaging of films that have been bona fide hits. In the case of Sony, we’ve seen this strategy crash and burn multiple times – like with GHOSTBUSTERS 2016 (which was great, but made little box office return) and FLATLINERS 2017 (which was atrocious and made no money). The studio’s latest franchise continuation is director Jake Kasdan’s JUMANJI: WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE, which expands and modernizes the game play from 1995’s original JUMANJI. And as a surprise to everyone, it’s turned out to be a ton of fun. While it’s not perfect, it captures a solid sense of exciting “B Movie” adventure, tying together a plot with resonant emotional stakes and characters you care about.
The tale unfolds like a newfangled BREAKFAST CLUB of sorts, with the similar archetypal high schoolers being assigned detention. As pretty girl Bethany (Madison Iseman), nerd Spencer (Alex Wolff), jock Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain) and smart-ass Martha (Morgan Turner) do their time, they dust off an old video game system in the storeroom – one with a cartridge labeled “Jumanji.” They begin to play, choosing their avatars, and get sucked into the game – literally. On the other side, they appear as their exact opposites: Spencer, now handsome, buff leader Dr. Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson); Fridge, now short, shrill valet “Moose” Finbar (Kevin Hart); Martha, now over-sexualized, badass Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan); and Bethany, now heavy-set, middle-aged Professor Shelley Oberon (Jack Black). Their objective: Save Jumanji from the clutches of arch-nemesis Professor van Pelt (Bobby Cannavale), who went to the dark side after stealing an emerald jewel from an ancient Jaguar statue. Once the jewel is returned, the curse will be reversed and they’ll be able to return home. The trouble is, they have a finite amount of lives in the game, three to be precise, and must work together as a team to survive. With deadly jungle beasts and evil henchmen all thirsting for their blood, their journey will be a challenge.
Though Chris McKenna, Jeff Pinkner, Scott Rosenberg and Erik Sommers’ screenplay takes its time to get there in terms of that game play sensation, there’s a wildly entertaining feeling infused in each ‘level.’ They build in real stakes and exemplary relationships for these characters – demonstrated through their bonds (or lack of them) and shown through their impactful actions. The purpose of Nick Jonas’ character – I’ll refrain from spoiling the specifics – deeply radiates throughout the second and third act. He’s essentially our avatar that hammers home the well-conceptualized themes for younger audiences – heartfelt messages about bravery, courage and sacrifice.
On the whole and individually, the casting is perfect. This JUMANJI manages to do what BAYWATCH tried to do and failed spectacularly, which is lampoon The Rock’s persona and let him play vulnerable. Black does a noteworthy job of playing a character within another character. It’s his best scrappily comedic work since TROPIC THUNDER. And as for family fare on his resume, this far outweighs the highly lackluster GOOSEBUMPS. Gillan embodies her awkward, reluctant badass heroine like a second skin. She’s tactile and nimble. Hart, too, as he goes beyond his stereotypical peacocking and screaming. He’s tolerable here, which, believe it or not, is a compliment. That said, these well-drawn characters can’t manage to dodge lots of expository dialogue the screenwriters lob at them. They also re-iterate details and how they relate to the plot too. You will be fully within your rights to roll your eyes when a character says, “It wasn’t the piece of the map – it was me!” The filmmakers also fail to fully explore all the self-aware material inherently involved. Their skillful ability to create a few genuinely humorous scenes only goes so far. Despite goofing on a few aspects of the genre and subverting a few tropes (specifically when it comes to Ruby), they wind up paying lip service to the spoofy qualities, rather than digging down deep.
Nevertheless, this sequel of sorts will win audiences over with its endearing charm and whip-smart approach. It shows how imaginative a re-imagining can be.
JUMANJI: WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE opens on December 20.