This is the moment in the year when we see so many different awards contenders hit the big screen, when people start talking about Oscar favorites and who is going to win at the Golden Globes. It is also one of the times in the year when big popcorn movies arrive at the local multiplex. “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” is undoubtedly part of the latter category, not the former.
The new film, directed by Jake Kasdan, is a sequel to 1995’s “Jumanji,” with Robin Williams. Although Williams’ character from that film is mentioned in the new movie, Kasdan’s film doesn’t rely on any sort of audience goodwill towards that first film, besides perhaps getting a few people to buy a ticket. “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” is very definitely related, but it is its own movie.
Even so, as with the first one, this new movie sees a game come to life. High schoolers Spencer (Alex Wolff), Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain), Bethany (Madison Iseman), and Martha (Morgan Turner) get more than they bargained for during detention when they stumble across a Jumanji videogame. Yes, unlike the original movie, which focused on a board game, this time out our heroes are sucked into a videogame where they become one the playable characters, complete with that character’s looks, strengths, and weaknesses.
This is a wonderfully considered change and one which Kasdan and company explain perfectly within the story. In fact, the establishment of these new representations and the rules of the game are the best things this updated “Jumanji” has going for it. Watching the characters learn the rules as they also discover and use their various strengths and experience their weaknesses is enjoyable.
So, Nerdy Spencer becomes a world class adventurer and is now played by Dwayne Johnson. Football star Fridge becomes a weapon valet and zoologist played by Kevin Hart. Reticent Martha becomes a kick-ass fighter played by Karen Gillan. Self-absorbed Bethany turns into a cartographer played by Jack Black.
A complaint could be lodged that the switches are all too easy. That as soon as the movie does this, it tilts its hand, letting everyone know exactly where it’s going to end up – all the characters will learn an important lesson about who they have been, who they are, and who they can be in the future.
There is some merit to this argument, and the movie does hit this a little hard throughout. However, everyone who sees the characters at the start of the film already knows that they’re going to be learning life lessons before the credits roll.
In order to escape the game world of Jumanji, the heroes have to return a crystal that was stolen years ago by the nefarious villain Van Pelt (Bobby Cannavale), but then taken Nigel (Rhys Darby), who introduces the characters to the game when they first arrive in the world.
Sure, this makes little sense. Why didn’t Nigel return the crystal? Why has he simply been waiting for these heroes to arrive as the world falls apart? The answer, although it doesn’t work for a movie, is perfect videogame logic – because if Nigel did that then there would be no game.
The bigger problem here is not the videogame logic, but rather the fact that the movie’s choice to establish the game as a series of levels the heroes have to traverse doesn’t pan out. It is a wonderful concept, but as presented, the levels are much more moments than anything larger. Additionally, they fail to build in terms of intensity or difficulty, despite the audience being told that the levels will get harder and harder.
Yes, “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” is something of a mess in terms of its structure. Cannavale’s Van Pelt is a wholly unnecessary addition to the proceedings, and the film even seems to recognize as much. The effects are not all that great and the action sequences aren’t shot very well, and these two issues meet in a disappointing helicopter sequence that could have been spectacular.
That said, all is not bad. In fact, there is more good than ill here as the performances given by the adults are exceptionally funny. There is an enthusiasm to their portrayals that is wonderful. At first blush one might worry that Jack Black playing a narcissistic teenage girl might grow very tiresome, but it does not. Johnson, Hart, Black, and Gillan all seem up for anything, and an appearance by Nick Jonas doesn’t dampen the proceedings.
“Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” is a movie full of great ideas which are regularly not well executed. Even so, it overcomes these deficiencies through the vim and vigor of its cast, all of whom, separately, are more than capable, and who together make for a very powerful team indeed.
photo credit: Sony Pictures