In 1995 the original Jumanji came out swinging by casting box office winner Robin Williams and employing Industrial Light and Magic to provide the special effects. While the gamble didn’t pay off with critics, who gave it tepid reviews, it was a hit for audiences. Almost twenty years later we are getting another Jumanji film, but it is neither a remake nor a sequel but more of a sidelong story set in the same universe. Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is an obvious play on nostalgia, but it manages to capture the fun spirit of the original film.
Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle opens with a father giving his teenage son a strange board game, but the son tosses it aside in favor of his video games. In the night the Jumanji board game transforms itself into a game cartridge and the young man gives it a try, only to disappear. Decades later we meet a new group of kids: Spencer (Alex Wolff) a nerdy smart kid; Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain), a football player and Spencer’s ex-best friend; Bethany (Madison Iseman) a self-centered and popular pretty girl; and Martha (Morgan Turner) a defiant outcast. All four find themselves in detention together on the same day and their principal forces them to clean out a backroom. But it all goes awry when the kids find the Jumanji game system and begin to play, only to be sucked down into the dangerous jungle and an adventure for which they are unprepared.
The shy Spencer finds himself transformed into the handsome and hulking Dr. Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson); Bethany unwittingly chooses the pudgy white professor Shelly Oberon (Jack Black); Fridge finds himself as Moose Finbar (Kevin Hart), the short-statured valet to Dr. Bravestone; and loner Martha becomes “Killer of Men” Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan). Their first few minutes unfold much like an action adventure game, complete with cutscenes that explain the story of a lost jewel and a deranged madman that they are expected to defeat in order to leave the game. All too soon the kids are forced to work together to solve the puzzles and find the clues before their limited lives run out. They soon find that their different skill sets will be necessary to defeat the challenges they face and that their biggest hardship will be learning to accept their limitations and trust each other.
The success of Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle rests on the shoulders of the four actors who play the avatar characters and happily they all manage to turn in a decent performance. Dwayne Johnson brings every ounce of his considerable charisma while also projecting the insecurities of a quiet teenager and sells both with equal skill. Jack Black is in full form as the distressed Bethany who is understandably upset to find herself in the body of a middle-aged man. He strikes a balance between valley girl and genuine self-confidence that allows for sympathy and comedy without turning the character into a joke. Unfortunately, Karen Gillan is relegated to the background and her acting skills are mostly used for awkward romance scenes and well-choreographed dance fights. While Kevin Hart’s character is given the most growth, he is only somewhat capable of providing nuance to the role and his comedic talents are not quite enough to make up for his lack of acting skills.
As long as you do not expect much out of it, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is a fun family comedy that actually manages to be enjoyable for the whole family. However, if you look too deep beneath the surface, the story begins to crumble and the weaknesses, such as the plot’s paper thin villain, become painfully obvious. At times the film takes a vaguely positive stance on things like the dangers of toxic masculinity or allowing others to define our strengths, but it does its best to put these into the background and focus on the broadly entertaining aspects of the film rather than sending a message.