Jumanji  was, in my opinion, one of Robin Williams’ middling efforts. It wasn’t terrible (House of D or License to Wed), nor was it great (Good Morning, Vietnam or Good Will Hunting); rather, it was serviceable, entertaining fare, a movie that some will list as their favorite Williams effort, and others will have forgotten. So when a sequel/reboot was announced, it wasn’t terribly high up on my list of must-see movies. However, as the list of attached names began to come out – Karen Gillan, whom I love as Nebula in the Guardians of the Galaxy franchise; Jack Black who, despite being hit and miss at times, can really elevate a comedy (think High Fidelity or Tropic Thunder); the always funny Kevin Hart (who I enjoyed as the voice of George earlier this year in Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie), who also just happens to have excellent chemistry with the other big name in the movie: Dwayne Johnson – my interest was piqued. How is it that, somehow, the Rock has managed to become one of the premier comedic actors of his time? Must be his intense smolder. Throw in Kiwi actor Rhys Darby (a favorite of mine from Flight of the Conchords and What We Do in the Shadows), and I decided I’d have to give the movie a go.
[SPOILER ALERT: Scroll through below to read my review of Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle. Comments about the movie will be limited to the opening fifteen minutes, as well as some mention of the 1995 film Jumanji.]
The movie opens with a boy coming across a sand-covered copy of the Jumanji board game sitting on a beach. He brings it home, takes a brief look at it, and complains, “Who plays board games anymore?” before turning to his video game system. Once he’s asleep, the game transforms itself into a video game cartridge, which entices the boy into playing when he awakens and sees it. Big mistake as, once he starts playing, he suddenly disappears in a burst of light. Flash forward twenty years, and we meet a group of teenagers: Spencer [Alex Wolff], a typical nerd; Fridge [Ser’Darius Blain], the jock; Bethany [Madison Iseman], the self-absorbed social media queen; and Martha [Morgan Turner], as socially awkward as Spencer, but who is even better at school than he is. Despite having very little in common (except that Spencer and Fridge were friends when they were young, and Spencer now does Fridge’s homework for him), they end up getting thrown together when they’re all given detention for various infractions.
They’re given a make-work project, but when they find a video game system with the Jumanji cartridge, their curiosity gets the better of them, and they decide to try it out. Each player chooses an avatar in the game, and then just as suddenly as the boy we saw in the opening, they disappear – and find themselves inside the game. Each one has taken on the persona of their personal avatar: Spencer is Dr. Smolder Bravestone [Dwayne Johnson], Fridge becomes Franklin “Mouse” Finbar [Kevin Hart], Martha becomes Ruby Roundhouse [Karen Gillan], and Bethany ends up as Professor Sheldon “Shelly” Oberon, played to hilarious effect by Jack Black, who pulls off playing the vacuous trend-setter to a tee. Bethany cross-gender transformation leads to a series of humorous moments, but never feels over-played.
Early on, Spencer figures out that they’re inside the video game, and all of the genre’s tropes – multiple lives, levels, boss fights – are going to be part of the world they find themselves in. Much of the humor stems from the adult avatars playing off-type. I’ve already mentioned Jack Black above, but it is equally a pleasure to watch Spencer’s nerd find himself in the body of The Rock, or Fridge’s sudden weakness and diminutive stature, or Martha’s coming to terms with being a kick-ass action figure. Her initial reaction – “Why am I wearing half a shirt and short shorts in the JUNGLE?” – shows that, despite her co-nerd status with Spencer, she’s probably never played any of the Tomb Raider games.
The movie’s deeper purpose is to encourage its characters, and hence its audience, to look beyond stereotypes and tropes, and to look to friendship and cooperation in order to find success. Selfish moves in a team game tend to lead to failure, and it does take a few mistakes for the team to begin to learn how to work together, each using their own strengths to offset the others’ weaknesses. Much as Goonies did for kids growing up in the 1980s, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle serves up a fine portion of adventure and friendship, with just enough jeopardy to spice up the mix.
Steve’s Rating: (8 / 10)
This update and pseudo-sequel to the original Jumanji  is a refreshing new take that deals with video game tropes with a high degree of self-awareness, and does so better than any actual video game adaptation has done before.
Director: Jake Kasdan
Writers: Chris McKenna & Erik Sommers and Scott Rosenberg & Jeff Pinkner (screenplay by); Chris McKenna (screen story by); Chris Van Allsburg (based on the book “Jumanji” by);
Greg Taylor (based on the film “Jumanji” screen story/screenplay by)
Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Jack Black, Karen Gillan, Rhys Darby
Release Date: December 20, 2017
Runtime: 1 hr. 59 mins.
MPAA Rating: PG-13