A film review by Craig J. Koban January 7, 2018

JUMANJI: 

WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE jjj

2017, PG-13, 119 mins.

 

Dwayne Johnson as Dr. Smolder Bravestone  /  Jack Black as Professor Shelly Oberon  /  Kevin Hart as Moose Finbar  /  Karen Gillan as Ruby Roundhouse  /  Nick Jonas as Alex  /  Rhys Darby as Nigel  /  Alex Wolff as Spencer  /  Madison Iseman as Bethany  /  Marc Evan Jackson as Principal Bentley

Directed by Jake Kasdan  /  Written by Chris McKenna, Scott Rosenberg , and Jeff Pinkner

SCREENED IN
3D

I'm not sure whether I should be shocked, embarrassed, or a strange combination of both by how much I enjoyed - to quote its full title - JUMANJI: WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE, the long awaited sort of sequel, sort of franchise reboot of the 1995 Robin Williams starring original.  

There has been a loyal contingent of fans out there that have coveted that 27-year-old film, which represented, for its time, a cutting edge CGI-infused fantasy action spectacular (I re-watched it recently and the VFX really, really don't hold up well).  I found the original JUMANJI too caffeinated for its own good and never considered it anything above a cheaply disposable romp and one of Williams' lesser vehicles, which leaves me more than a bit surprised by how well oiled and genuinely pleasant JUMANJI: WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE is as a sequel that respects (if I can even say that) the mythology of the original while twisting and turning it subtly to update it for a modern audience.

Directed with boundless enthusiasm by Jake Kasdan (son of Lawrence and maker of ZERO EFFECT, ORANGE COUNTY, BAD TEACHER, and SEX TAPE), the film has a sly opening set in the past that helps cement the overall tone its aiming for.  It's 1996 and we see a father jogging on the beach that discovers a washed up board game called "Jumanji" half buried in the sand.  He joyously scoops it up, returns home, and promptly gives it to his sullen teenage son, who incredulously looks at the archaic board game with spite and very soon afterwards turfs it into the garbage.  "Who plays board games anymore?" he asks while he turns his attention to his shoot 'em up video game.  But then the board game magically transforms itself into a fairly garish looking video game console from a bygone era, which peaks the curiosity of the lad.  When he plugs it in to play he finds himself magically whisked out of his earthly surroundings and into the console. 

Paging Rod Serling.

 

 

We then flashfiorward two decades to the present and meet a new group of high school teens: There's the mild mannered and geeky Spencer (Alex Wolfe), the massive hot shot jock Fridge (Ser' Darius Blain), the self-absorbed and social media obsessed hottie Bethany (Madison Iseman), and the tomboy-ish and introverted Martha (Morgan Turner).  Through various means, all of these troubled teens find themselves in detention for various authority defying infractions, but while cleaning the school's media room as part of their punishment they discover - yup! - a dust covered Jumanji video game console, the same apparent one that caused the other teen to disappear twenty years earlier.  Assuming that the machine is just a forgotten and abandoned console, the group hooks it up to a nearby TV to waste some time.  Predictably, when they boot the console up and select their respective characters (it's a four way multiplayer game), all of them find themselves teleported into the game itself.

Now, it's at this point when JUMANJI; WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE gets interesting as far as sequels go.  To the teens' absolute astonishment, they all find themselves teleported into the tropical jungle that is Jumanji in the game and, even more outrageous, they all have new avatar bodies of the game characters they selected earlier in the real world.  The relatively skinny and pint sized Alex now finds himself inhabiting the hulked out body of the hilariously spot on named adventurer Dr. Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson).  In the polar opposite direction is poor Fridge, whom now has the form of the very diminutive and ironically named Moose Finbar (Kevin Hart).  Martha, in turn, discovers that she's now the uber sexy and scantily clad Lara Croft-ian babe Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan) and, perhaps humorously worst of all, Bethany is now...inside the body of an "overweight middle aged man" in the form of Professor Shelly Oberon (Jack Black). 

The group tries as hard as they can under the circumstances to acclimate themselves to their new bodies (and special abilities and weaknesses contained within) while realizing they must find a way off of the island and back home.  Part of the giddy entertainment value in this JUMANJI outing is how much subversive pleasure this film has in sending up and lampooning classic video game troupes and gaming culture as a whole.  Kasdan and his writers display ample joy in serving up a healthy smorgasbord of overused SNES and Genesis era game conventions, replete with clunky and stilted dialogue exchanges with NPC (non-player characters for the uninitiated), multiple lives (each of the teens discover that they can die up to three times and be resurrected back in the game), and a series of "special abilities" and "weaknesses" that are uproariously specific (the perfectly chiseled Bravestone, for example, has no weaknesses, whereas the ultra vulnerable Finbar's is susceptible to seemingly everything...the worst of which being cake).  Beyond that, JUMANJI: WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE even goes out of its way to acknowledge and then comment on Gillan appearing in hyper sexualized garb, seeing as so many female game characters of yesteryear (and pathetically still today) are ridiculously objectified. 

Many of the best laughs to be had in the film are at the very expense of these teens struggling to accept their current avatar shells.  Alex arguably struggles the least, seeing as he has the body and strength of The Rock and can essentially punch his way out of anything, whereas Fridge is so physically weak that his only real talent is holding the team's backpack and dispensing gear and weapons.  Martha soon realizes that she must use her avatar's sultry attractiveness to her advantage in combat...even while despising the notion that her character being clad in a halter top and short shorts is clearly demeaning to her gender (Ruby's biggest strength, though, is "dance fighting," which is as ridiculously funny as it sounds).  Poor Bethany is forced to deal with being a teen beauty queen trapped in Jack Black's portly body, but this builds to some of the film's biggest comic payoffs, as in one scene when she has to pathetically asked how to urinate properly in her new male body.  Once the gender-confused Bethany gets the hang of it she proudly screams mid-tinkle "It's so much easier to pee with a penis!"

The satirical game elements in JUMANJI: WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE don't end there, seeing as the teens end up having to go up against the jungle's main baddie in Bobby Cannavale's sneering Van Pelt, the game's final boss that will lead to the heroes beating it, getting a game over screen, and allowing them to return home.  The villain here is sort of lacking overall as a menacing figure of interest despite his sinister facade, not to mention that JUMANJI: WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE frequently feels like it runs on a little too long for its own good and contains some sluggishly paced scenes (a nearly two hours, this material could have benefited from a shorter cut).  Also, there's simply no denying here that this sequel is born out of obvious cash-grab incentivization from the studio that's desperate to make a quick buck at the expense of milking an old franchise that didn't, in my opinion, really ever scream out sequel potential that was rich with further stories to tell.

Still, JUMANJI: WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE is a long gestating sequel that seriously improves upon its predecessor in most tangible ways and succeeds as being a lightweight, funny, and action packed adventure flick that an entire family can digest and enjoy.  The film, like the original, is jam packed with visual effects (CGI rhinos and elephants make a comeback), but Kasdan isn't myopically focused on sheer eye popping spectacle here.  It's the exceptionally well assembled cast here and their spirited interplay and chemistry that makes JUMANJI so agreeably watchable (Johnson remains effortlessly charming here and his CENTRAL INTELLIGENCE co-star in Hart gets good mileage out of his motor mouthed schtick, but Gillian and Black in particular are standouts as their nerd transported into a kick-ass babe and valley girl trapped in a tubby schlub's body respectively).  I also appreciated how this film took its time developing its teen characters earlier on, which allows us to care about them in their avatar form later.  JUMANJI: WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE is a more of a mass marketed studio product than a truly necessary sequel, but as far as mass marketed studio products go...this one's competently made, slyly written and agreeable in the right dosages. 

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