Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle
Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is probably one of the most vigorous examples of a “pleasant surprise” film-going experience in recent memory. What started out as a movie pegged by fans of the original Jumanji to be a shallow cash-grab and an insult, and hampered by some very aggravating trailers, not only turns out to be a good film and follow-up to the 1995 fantasy adventure film but far more successful than anyone expected it to be. While I am with the general consensus that it is a fun romp, feeling in part like a throwback to action adventure films of the 90s, I do feel that there were ways in which they could have shored up their connections to the original and other elements that would have also helped it stand on its own.
Four students in Brantford High School are placed in detention together: shy, geeky Spencer Gilpin, who is writing essays for his former jock friend, Anthony “Fridge” Johnson, while shallow, Instagram-obsessed Bethany Walker and antisocial wallflower Martha Kaply both disrespected their respective teachers during class. Assigned by the school’s principal to clear out its basement, the four kids find the Jumanji game, now transformed from a board game into a five-player action-adventure console game. With one of the playable characters (video game avatars) inaccessible, the teens select the others, and are teleported into the game. They find themselves in a jungle, each now in the forms of their game avatars. Spencer is a tough, muscular explorer named Dr. Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson), Fridge is a short zoologist named Franklin “Mouse” Finbar (Kevin Hart), Martha is a gorgeous commando and martial art expert named Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan), and Bethany is an overweight, male cartographer named Professor Sheldon “Shelly” Oberon (Jack Black). They learn from Nigel (Rhys Darby), an NPC guide, that the big-game hunter, Russel Van Pelt (Bobby Cannavale), wants to obtain a jewel, the “Jaguar’s Eye”, allowing him to manipulate Jumanji’s animals. To escape the game, the players must return it to an enormous jaguar statue and call out “Jumanji”, all the while facing the various trials and tribulations the game has to offer.
If one bit of casting with the four main actors was off, I think it could have undone the film completely. The Rock acting shy and awkward without turning into a nerd stereotype is really funny and quite charming yet still having considerable presence and charisma. Hart is funny, but ultimately the weakest of the bunch because he’s really playing to his usual character role of a small person with a huge personality. Black is surprisingly convincing as a high school girl trapped in an overweight middle aged man’s body, and he makes Bethany’s arc of becoming less self-absorbed and more caring believable and even genuine. Gillan does well at portraying an awkward girl in an athletic body, handling herself very well in the action scenes, but really shines at being a bad flirt. Nick Jonas appears at the halfway point as a surprise character, and generally he does quite well (better than I expected, as not really a Jonas brother fan), acting like a teenager right out of the 90s. While he does have a cool and creepy look to him, Cannavale does what he can as a very one dimensional villain and mostly hams up the part for all its worth. Darby is funny as a one note NPC, repeating himself when asked abnormal questions in the same jocular tone. As the kids themselves in the real world, Morgan Turner, Alex Wolff and Madison Iseman appear to be of the right age for teenagers and act the part well enough, but Ser’Darius Blain just looks and sounds too old for the part, even if it serves in-game the juxtaposition later on. Marc Evan Jackson is fairly funny in a brief but somewhat expositional role as the school principal.
Although there are less of them compared to the first films, the CGI animals are pretty average looking, some looking better than others like the Hippo encounter and the Rhino stampede. At the same time, however, all of them certainly look better than, say, the CGI monkeys from the first film. The combination of CGI and solid production design on the exotic bazaar, temples and jungle monuments hold up better and make the world of the game something you could almost want to explore as a real video game, playing to those “Darkest Africa” tropes that the board game of the first film did. The action scenes and stunts are fun to watch, being filmed mostly in camera, but still allowing for a few larger than life sequences like a helicopter being chased by stampeding rhinos.
It is a very pretty film, with vibrant greens and a warm tropical feel. However, the Hawaiian jungles to me don’t really strike me as scary in any way (unless it’s Spielberg directing those scenes); I think they could have picked a more exotic locale that could be seen as the same “deepest, darkest jungle” which Alan strongly hinted at in the first film. Weakened connections like that do make it feel more like a remake or another film entirely with the Jumanji name strapped on rather than a true sequel.
Henry Jackman is a very hit and miss composer for me, sometimes producing decent scores but other times not so much; fortunately, this is one of his stronger entrees; A full orchestral score with some stylistic debt owed to Alan Silvestri and Danny Elfman during the peak of their respective careers, its very percussive and brassy and in someways a more militaristic and bombastic follow-up to James Horner’s emotional and exotic score from the original film. The iconic Jumanji drums do make a return, albeit with somewhat of a makeover, sounding perhaps more exciting and less ominous. Curiously enough parts of the main theme, which in of itself is quite memorable, hearkens back to the iconic “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” from The Wizard of Oz.
The film does struggle to find its footing at first with the main characters all being stereotypes; the jock, the nerd, the popular girl and the wallflower. All of which are played annoyingly straight at first with little depth to them. However, it does add to the juxtaposition of these high schoolers in vastly different bodies. Seeing these four actors play against the type, in lieu of a movie like Freaky Friday, is the most fun aspect of the film. The majority of jokes really land; two of the best had me laughing hard on repeated viewings. One that I really wish wasn’t in the trailer: the exploding Kevin Hart cake gag, and the other was Karen Gillan’s amazingly awkward “flirting” attempts. They even make a penis joke not only funny but kind of clever as well, something I thought was impossible. The premise of a girl accidentally being stuck in a male avatar is not played cynically or cruelly, and the fact that they avoid that and Black himself is the most consistently fun actor of the bunch is impressive. Video game tropes played for jokes, like the aforementioned Nigel character as a deliberately one note NPC character, and a flashback being framed as a video game cut-scene. The tone of the comedy is more centred on teenagers and broader, but the film is more light-hearted overall than the original.
It’s interesting that the film plays more to the broad strokes of The Wizard of Oz in a similar vein to how the first film did to Peter Pan. Each of the characters comes into Jumanji flawed or in need of a lesson of some kind, and they come out of the game matured people. Basic stuff, sure, but it is there. The film sort of pushes a theme of the four kids having only “one life”, which is somewhat ironic at first as they have three lives in the Jumanji game, but it takes on a more sincere tone by the third act. There is a potentially great central theme in there but it’s just not as fleshed out as it could have been. I believe that more could have been done with this premise, what if for example there were some bullies who became characters in the game, or if Van Pelt’s appearance was based on a criminal, abusive parent, or teacher? Something that could really scare one of the protagonists like the original Van Pelt did for Alan Parrish. To be honest, I’m still not sure why he’s called Van Pelt to begin with, the name could have been different and it would have given him more of an identity. The most he has going for him are his abilities and army of henchmen, so the psychology of the original Van Pelt is lost.
Even though the Jumanji board game does appear right at the beginning, hey fudge the exact details of the game ending up on a beach, even linking back to the original town in the first film. It’s a small and easily overlooked detail. The setting is Alan Parrish’s hometown of Brantford, noticeably updated for the 2010s. They also homage Robin Williams’ character about halfway through the film to confirm that this is the same jungle that this character survived for 26 years in, its simple but effective and sweet in its execution.
Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is fairly entertaining, had a nice sense of fun and spectacle, and made me chuckle every now and again, exceeding my then-low expectations, mainly thanks to its four lead actors. But the weak villain and lack of tension is obvious, the humour did have its misses, and admittedly it does have enough heart to get by but not as much as the Robin Williams film. The best thing is the main cast and the action adventure throughout, and it delivers on that successfully.