Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle uses video-game conventions with honesty and a marvelous cast, becoming a jauntily hyperactive experience of holiday escapism.
The original Jumanji has a prologue showings its magical board game on the beach, and Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle starts with a man picking it up from the beach. So this is more of a sequel than a reboot, sending a nice homage to the original character by the late Robin Williams.
There is an ironic disparity between the two films when a turn-based strategy game is messier than a free-roaming role-playing one. Unlike the original’s incessant stream of killer flora and noisy fauna that drowns character development, the new challenges create fascinating, though commonplace, scenarios for characters to grow with their in-game bodies and entailed attributes. Welcome to the Jungle is everything that *Power Rangers *aimed to be and missed while wrestling with teen angst and powerful quirks. Peppy and well-acted with harmless fun, the sequel to the 90s classic doesn’t break new ground, but I wish Hollywood would make this kind of “video game” movies for the holiday seasons.
The first fifteen minutes, when the adult cast hasn’t appeared, is not as boring as I wanted it to be. Director Jake Kasdan takes time to establish characters and sets up minor details and the theme regarding consciously living one’s life. We meet four high school kids in detention—a Breakfast Club-ish group. The game-savvy nerd, the negligent jock, the self-obsessed hot chick, and the quiet outcast are respectively Spencer (Alex Wolff), Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain), Bethany (Madison Iseman), and Martha (Morgan Turner). They start out as cardboard figures but, to our surprise, will triumphantly grow into the better of themselves. Sucked together into a bizarre video game called Jumanji, the kids find themselves in different bodies and against a life-changing challenge.
The dramatic gist runs well between these four individuals. Spencer not only has to ensure his courage and his growing affection with Martha but also solve the conflict with Fridge, who used to be his best friend before they grew apart. You know, the nerd is not cool enough for the jock. Martha embraces her unique beauty and changes her withdrawn manners, more or less through lessons in primping from Bethany, who finds out her smartphone is not that important.
The film acknowledges its video-game setting by taking advantage of some features. It finds the least boring way around exposition by using NPCs (non-playable characters, according to Spencer) to summarize the basics and the goal. To win and get out of the game, the gaming quartet must find a sacred emerald and return it to a giant Jaguar statue. This jewel was stolen by a power-hungry explorer called Russel Van Pelt (Bobby Cannavale), an antagonist with Beastmaster-like power and an army of gun-toting motorists. We needn’t care about him—though Van Pelt stands out among the NPCs as an unrestricted creature (possibly to keep the audience guessing if he is someone we saw earlier).
Other NPCs always repeat themselves for the sake of spoon-feeding, then this tidbit becomes one among many funny recurring gags. However, what makes the movie tick is its A-list cast of comic talents. The nerdy Spencer might feel amazed and confident in his new body, the sweaty hunk Dr. Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson). This is a man with “smoldering intensity,” physical finesse, and zero flaws, but Spencer’s awkwardness still seeps out of his avatar. This gives The Rock many situations of ineptitude and gradual growth to charm viewers—not without the scene where his drolly charismatic Bravestone beats up bad guys.
Fridge, only relies on Spencer to pass assignments, shrink to half his original size into the zoologist Moose (or Mouse?) Finnbar (Kevin Hart) with only two advantages. One is reciting information from Wikipedia, and one lies in his backpack with tools to support Bravestone. Hart’s portrayal is the exact level of raucous bitterness and deserving disenfranchisement that a stoic, burly jock feels when trapped inside a short sidekick with no practical talent. That said, people familiar with his twitchy grimaces can soon be tired with this overripen trick.
Bethany is baited into choosing cartographer Shelly Oberon (Jack Black) by the hilariously deceptive description. Yes, Oberon is curvy, only not in the way Bethany wants as improvement on her abs. Her comfort is in a glossy bubble with perks like Instagram followers, breakups with hot boyfriends, and video calls with her BFF during a quiz. It’s easy to hate her, but Bethany redeems herself in time and shows a different side hidden by her shallow image. This character turns out to be the best one, thanks to Black’s body humor and multilayered excellence, initially of Bethany’s vexing fussiness and then her candid change for the better.
I cringed when the shy, inactive Martha stands up to her PE teacher about the uselessness of physical activities. That impression nevertheless contributes to her mental challenge when Martha turns into Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan), an athletic young woman. Martha questions her revealing outfit, though her shorts and crop top are intrinsic to Martha’s arc, and a whimsical scene with Black. As the sole female and the least famous star in the adult cast, Gillan is vivacious in spirit and composed in delivering jokes, creating a sharp disposition for her character. Except for one exaggerated gag in Martha’s seductive walk.
This body-swap trope gives way to self-deprecating humor, overall surprisingly in good taste. The film has an acceptable dose of broad humor with pratfalls and dick jokes and penis jokes. The amusing script knows when to shoot down lame bits by inserting a new problem, thus keeping the engaging momentum. In this game, characters’ strengths and weaknesses seem idiosyncratic when read from the stats, but the script fills them in circumstances to challenge each character. Those situations range from rewarding (venom) to kooky (cake).
The affable NPC Nigel (a goofy Rhys Darby) doesn’t give the kids all need-to-know hints. They find out more about the three-life rule everyone keeps in mind via the stripes on their wrists. Throughout the film, each “death” comes with its dramatic weight, either to heighten the Spencer-Fridge conflict, educate Bethany on selflessness, help them out of a bottleneck, or a final resolution that wins applause for the adroit Martha. Halfway through the film, eagle-eyed viewers are satisfied by their attention when an important player appears—that’s why Spencer and Fridge can’t choose the first character.
There’s plenty of untapped potential in this script Kasdan can’t visualize when he shot on location in Hawaii, hence barely an engaging set piece—some of the five stages in the word of Jumanji look the same. When compared to Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, Kasdan’s modern classic of musical biopic-parody, Welcome to the Jungle is more earnest but less comically piercing. With a rushing score from the composer of adventures Henry Jackman, DP Gyula Pados’ camera adequately tracks characters along the mandatory visual panache (wide-ranging tropical landscapes and stampedes). Viewers can still keep up with the bickering and discussion of strategy.
Welcome to the Jungle is not emotionally complex, but also never half-baked. This is a film that improves itself on video-game conventions with honesty and a marvelous cast, becoming a jauntily hyperactive experience of holiday escapism. Want to get your head away from The Last Jedi toxic discussions? Go watch Welcome to the Jungle and don't even mind David Ayer's Netflix blockbuster Bright.
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