by Philip Price
I was born in 1987. Meaning I turned a perfect eight years-old in 1995. I don't know if I first saw Joe Johnston's “Jumanji” when it opened that December, but I know I saw it within a year of that release and many, many times after. Admittedly, I haven't revisited the whole of the picture in quite some time, but what I clearly remember about the experience of “Jumanji” at that impressionable age was the unexpected grandeur of it all-the substance the film carried in the tragedy of this child disappearing from this pristine town and the unfortunate dynamic between he and his parents that, when he did finally return, would lead to a lifetime of regret. These were big themes for a little kid and maybe even the first time I'd really been forced to contemplate as much. It was a movie that made a big impression if not for the mystery and implied scale, but for these themes of loss that resonated with me and now allow me to have these fond and rather heartfelt memories of the film. And so, it goes, I could not have been less excited for a 22-year later sequel that would seemingly have no connection to the original, but instead be branded as such to entice the interest of audiences such as myself while selling the movie to younger crowds on the concept of stars like Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Jack Black and Karen Gillan appearing in an all-out action adventure with a cool premise. I wasn't ready to think this kind of backwards engineering of new franchises by mining old movies that appealed to those who now have disposable income and children of their own to get as many butts in seats as such brand recognition could, but dammit if this twenty-two-year later sequel isn't a whole lot of fun. “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” isn't going to break any barriers or win any awards, but that's not its intention and given that intention and my lowered expectations out of nothing more than my affection for the original I went into this new film hoping the well-rounded cast could turn what undoubtedly had to be a half-hearted story into something at least remotely entertaining. Not only is ‘Welcome to the Jungle’ entertaining though, but it is consistently engaging in the obvious, but well executed video game-level structure it possesses as well as offering far more frequent and less obvious laughs than I would have expected the script to deliver. At just under two hours (credits and all) this belated, but welcome (who would have thought?) expansion on the world of “Jumanji” is certainly an adventure worth taking for those of us that seek to find a place to leave their world behind (and for those who just want to have a good time at the movies).
In this sequel that certainly intends to reboot the series if as much is successful we begin in 1996 and are introduced to a man who, while jogging, happens to stumble upon a board game in the sand-that game being the titular one the characters at the end of the first film apparently did not get rid of well enough. This man turns out to be Mr. Vreeke (Tim Matheson) who has a young son named Alex (Mason Guccione) that he naturally gives the game to upon returning home, but given it is 1996 and kids don't really play board games anymore we learn that not only is Jumanji able to suck players into its world, but that it is also able to adapt with the times and essentially transforms itself into a video game for the console Alex happens to have in his room at that time. Within the first five minutes of the movie those (if you've seen the original and you don't necessarily need to to enjoy this) familiar drums start to pound for a second time, waking up Alex, convincing him to play the game, and ultimately sucking him into the world of Jumanji. Cut to twenty years later and we're introduced to modern teenagers Spencer (Alex Wolff) who is something of a nerdy outcast that was once best friends with now football star and all-around jock Anthony AKA "Fridge" (Ser'Darius Blain) whom he now writes history papers for so that Fridge might remain on the football team. There's also the perpetual example of the popular girl as embodied by Bethany (Madison Iseman) and the perpetually anti-social girl in Martha (Morgan Turner) who each happen to do something just upsetting enough to land themselves in detention on the same day. Once in detention and once given a stirring speech about finding out who they really are and who they really want to be by the consistently dry and always hilarious Marc Evan Jackson as their principal they are whisked off to the basement of the school for their punishment: de-stapling magazines for the recycling plant. Of course, this quartet of kids don't get very far in the de-stapling business given the fact that somehow, Alex Vreeke's gaming console has ended up in the school basement, and both Fridge and Alex are curious enough to check it out while coaxing Martha and Bethany into joining them. This version of Jumanji doesn't mess around and as soon as our four main characters choose their avatars for the game they are sucked into the world of Jumanji transforming the timid Alex into the noble leader that is Dr. Smolder Bravestone (Johnson), Fridge into the petite, but efficient weapons valet in zoologist Moose Finbar (Hart), Martha into the scantily clad, but more than capable Ruby Roundhouse (Gillan) and Bethany into Professor Shelly Oberon (Black), a renowned cartographer who is also an overweight, middle-aged man.
Once we arrive in the world of Jumanji and with the stars that no doubt factored into the reason a lot of people will show up to this thing outside of whatever percentage brand recognition can still claim is when we naturally get into a more obvious structure. This is literally a movie set inside of a video game and so there are obvious levels and tropes to those levels that will inevitably play out, but the movie has a lot of fun with each of these and each of the actors are very clearly having such a good time in each of the scenarios they are presented with that nothing ever feels stale or trite despite as much certainly being an option. Furthermore, outside of these scenarios the actors can play up the personalities of these pre-established teenagers within their already well-defined personas as well as the skills attributed to the avatar they represent in the game. For instance, Johnson is very much supposed to be a version of Johnson when playing Bravestone-an alpha male with huge muscles and superior athletic skill who is also good with weapons; essentially everything we imagine The Rock to be like in real life-but within this persona Johnson is also meant to play this timid, nerdy kid named Alex who must adapt to be the leader and having the skills to accomplish as much. With Hart, Finbar is supposed to be a well-educated, but grateful companion to the physically superior Bravestone whereas, once Fridge inhabits his body, he becomes this never-ending machine of quips and jabs that attempt to cover up his insecurities about not being able to be as physically dominating as he would normally be. This allows for the arcs of both Alex and Fridge to develop naturally over the course of the movie with each of them coming to understand the other's perspective better given the expectations placed on their avatars. For the two females the dynamic is slightly different, but they're both still meant to take away a lesson from being trapped in a body other than their own. Bethany is introduced to us posing for countless selfies to make herself look and feel as effortlessly cool and beautiful as possible for when she shares it with the world. In her inhabitance of Professor Oberon not only does she learn the obvious lesson of it not always being what's on the outside that counts, but more that she learns how to support and build up others who aren't as confident; encouraging Martha specifically to embrace who she is, the skillset she has as Ruby Roundhouse, and owning it to a degree the meek, but defensive Martha wouldn't typically care to project. That said, Gillan also gets a few choice scenes set to Big Mountain's version of "Baby I Love Your Way," that are fantastic. Having the likes of Black essentially play a teenage plastic is a genius move, but it is the camaraderie between these characters that is deepened by their journey in these new bodies that make the movie fun to watch, the characters easy to relate to, and their friendship even more genuine.
“Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” is, by all accounts, everything one could want in a family-friendly action adventure given the recognizable faces, the familiar yet still fresh concept, and the general air of comedy that surrounds every facet of the film; and to such promises, the movie lives up to what it intends to be. There is no overstating how much fun can be had at this movie as it is a legitimately good time, doesn't take itself too seriously, or try to get too sentimental in the end to inject real heart as this heart is present throughout the entire journey of our four main characters figuring out the meaning of that cheesily placed thesis from their principal at the onset of detention. Rather, ‘Welcome to the Jungle’ finds its notes of meaning and fulfillment in the performers and their commitment to what could have easily been dismissed as material too corny to convey any kind of authentic emotion. Johnson and Hart once again play well off one another as seen in their previous collaboration, “Central Intelligence,” while throwing a personality as big as Black's into the mix was again genius. Still, though it might be easy to assume Black will be playing a version of his goofy personality the comedian doesn't make things so easy on himself as he wholly commits to the bit of playing this stereotypical mean girl and then giving her layers by revealing the good intentions she holds and the lack of any real hateful spirit that might have just been a facade to go along with her pre-determined look in high school. Once Bethany looks like Oberon, Black takes the hits at his age and weight like a champ and still carries himself as if he were Bethany-in every scene and in every instance. Solely focusing on Black in each scene to see to what degree he inhabits this character is worth the price of admission alone, but add to this the fact that the four-man screenwriting team have come up with a handful of good to great jokes in the film that aren't totally obvious given the circumstances as well as a couple of great running jokes, one in particular involving Black's character, that land so well I can't imagine anyone being unhappy with the film as the otherwise obvious plot resolves itself and we end on the obligatory, but fittingly happy note. I was nervous director Jake Kasdan, having only worked on mid-level comedies like “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story” and “Bad Teacher,” might not be the guy to helm a major action/comedy that required equal parts heart, comedy, and adventure while mostly pandering to the younger members of the audience, but the balance is on point here with Nick Jonas showing up to also please a certain demographic (and doing a better than expected job at such) and Bobby Cannavale making a menacing if not exactly memorable villain (which is in line with most video games from the ‘90s). All things considered, ‘Welcome to the Jungle’ is an entertaining, funny, and often thrilling experience that is more than worthy of a place to venture into if you're seeking to leave your own world behind for a couple of hours.