Considering its place among the first post-Jurassic Park CG blockbusters, the Robin Williams’ vehicle Jumanji still seems like a strange film to require a sequel. Since the original film dealt with a mysterious board game, a lost boy who came back, bringing a herd of computer generated wildlife with him, you’d assume the concept was spent. And when you consider the scant source (Chris Van Allsburg’s children’s book), the need for an update seems even more specious.
Thankfully, the makers of Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle have found a clever way of revisiting the title, and in doing so, they have created one of the more entertaining mainstream movies in a long time. Credit has to be given to Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Kevin Hart, and Jack Black for finding the proper balance of bravado and buffoonery, their actions lending the narrative a lightness and spunk that’s missing from many Cineplex offerings. There’s also an inventive premise that takes the oft-maligned (and rightfully so) video game subgenre and turns the whole thing into a triumph.
Our story begins with Alex Vreeke (Mason Guccione) receiving the Jumanji game as a gift. Naturally, he plays it and gets trapped inside. Fast forward 20 years and a group of teenagers are required to serve detention by cleaning out their school’s basement. Spencer Gilpin (Alex Wolff), Anthony “Fridge” Johnson (SerDarius Blain), Bethany Walker (Madison Iseman), and Martha Kaply (Morgan Turner) come across a video game version of Jumanji and decide to see what it’s all about.
Immediately they are sucked into the title’s wild world, where each one takes on a digital avatar. Spencer becomes the burly adventurer Dr. Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson), while Anthony becomes Moose Finbar (Kevin Hart), a diminutive zoologist. Martha becomes Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillian) a Laura Croft wannabe, while Bethany is turned into the tubby Professor Sheldon Oberon (Jack Black). Naturally, they run into Alex and vow to help. Turns out, they have to come together and stop John Van Pelt (Bobby Cannavale) from exploiting the powers of something called the Jaguar’s Eye. Much humorous hijinx and edge of the seat action ensues.
It’s rare when almost everything in a film clicks. From the comedy to the action, the chemistry between the members of the cast and the narrative being employed, you usually get a failure or at least something subpar along the way. Thankfully, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle manages to avoid the pitfalls of such a high concept approach to deliver a delightful mix of mayhem and humor. There are nods to the original, a great camaraderie between the video game characters, and a lot of fun buried in between.
Sure, the storyline stretches credibility and it’s hard to totally erase the memory of the original effort from your mind, but you have to give kudos to everyone involved. With the concept of a Jumanji sequel bearing down on him, director Jake Kasdan delivers. Even more impressive is that a script by committee (there are at least five names listed in the credits) turned out to be so polished, engaging, and most importantly, enjoyable.
While he can stumble on occasion–cough, cough, Baywatch, cough, cough–Dwayne Johnson sure knows how to pick his projects. If there is such a thing as a populist cinematic superstar, he is it. Like an unexpected gift under the Christmas tree, this is a delightful film that provides more than enough bang for your buck. You’ll laugh, you’ll cheer, and you’ll wonder why it took a former WWE wrestler and his pals to turn this classic from the past into a joy today.