I’m not a huge fan of the original Jumanji. I rewatched it last year on a plane to the set of the sequel, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, and not much about it held up other than Robin Williams’ funny and heartwarming performance. To give the film a sequel isn’t exactly treading on sacred ground, and to his credit, director Jake Kasdan and the screenwriters have found a clever way to not only update Jumanji, but make you invested in new characters and their adventure. Although the action sequences are a bit rote and it always feels like the movie could go further with its satire of video games, the film succeeds thanks to its outstanding cast who have excellent comedic chemistry. Although the story proceeds pretty much how you expect, Welcome to the Jungle shows there’s definitely life still left in Jumanji.
Nerdy Spencer (Alex Wolff), jock Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain), self-absorbed Bethany (Madison Iseman), and aloof Martha (Morgan Turner) all find themselves in detention for various reasons, and while they’re cleaning up the school’s basement, they find an old video game system with a cartridge for Jumanji. The high-schoolers power on the system and end up getting sucked into the game where they take on the avatars they selected: Dr. Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson), Moose Finbar (Kevin Hart), Dr. Shelley Oberon (Jack Black), and Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan), respectively. Although they look and sound completely different, they have the same personalities and now the game has tasked them with returning a jewel to a Jaguar statue. The only way to escape the game and survive is to complete the task, so the four students try to survive the jungle of Jumanji with various threats bearing down on them.
Turning Jumanji from a board game to a video game and then putting the characters inside the game rather than bringing the game to the outside world is a smart move, and one that feels timely since video games have become so prevalent in our culture. That’s not to say that they weren’t around in 1995—in the film, the game “sees” a PlayStation (the opening 10 minutes feels like a PlayStation ad) and transforms from a board game to game cartridge—but video game tropes have become widely known by this point. And yet there are still times where Jumanji has to grind to a halt to explain certain aspects of a video game and gums up the satire. You’ll have Spencer/Bravestone explaining to the other characters (and the audience) what an “NPC” or a “cut scene” is, and it all feels so close to working, but the movie is struggling to balance jokes for people who know video games and those who have never picked up a controller. It feels a bit unnecessary to make these explanations since pretty much everyone plays games on their phones now, and it’s not like the original had to slow down to explain how a board game works.
One everything gets explained, Jumanji settles into a rhythm that just lets the characters shine. Yes, there are “lives” and “levels”, but rather than go deep on video game jokes, the movie gets comfortable with its characters and lets the humor from those relationships. Johnson and Hart are basically just doing another variation on their dynamic from Central Intelligence where Johnson is the muscular nerd and Hart is diminutive yet confident, but it still works. Meanwhile, Black makes a meal of playing a teenage girl and owns every scene that he’s in while still giving Bethany a real arc. Meanwhile, Gillan is surprisingly good (I never watched Doctor Who so I’m not as familiar with her body of work) and really nails the comic elements of her character.
Where the movie tends to drag are the set pieces. It’s not that Kasdan does a good or bad job of developing them as much as they just lack tension. You know that the characters will make their way through, and the movie doesn’t do enough to make use of the characters’ special abilities to provide a spark to the action scenes. Because the movie lives or dies with its comedy and the characters aren’t cracking as many jokes during an action scene, Jumanji goes limp when it’s time for a set piece. You start checking your watch, wondering when we can get back to the characters bouncing off each other.
It’s a nice surprise that a Jumanji sequel—something that, if we’re being honest, we didn’t really need or ask for—ended up as a nice, funny, worthwhile family film that has great performances. I don’t know if we’ll need another Jumanji movie after this one, but it’s certainly an amusing ride while you’re on it.