Jumanji: A Welcome Return To The Jungle
Review by Aaron Haughton
Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is a nice modernization to premise of the original film, done in the way that reboots out to be: with a smattering of nuance and originality, finding a harmonious balance in its references to the nostalgic without becoming overly obnoxious. It's as sharp as one can hope a family film to be, and it's loaded with laughs and some genuine thrills. It's not without its problems, and it's far from perfect, but all of its weaknesses and flaws are salvaged by its solid performances and the fact that it never loses sight of what it wants to be.
When four high-school kids discover an old video game console with a game they've never heard of — Jumanji — they're immediately drawn into the game's jungle setting, literally becoming the avatars they chose: gamer Spencer becomes a brawny adventurer (Dwayne Johnson); football jock Fridge loses (in his words) "the top two feet of his body" and becomes an Einstein (Kevin Hart); popular girl Bethany becomes a middle-aged male professor (Jack Black); and wallflower Martha becomes a badass warrior (Karen Gillan). What they discover is that you don't just play Jumanji — you must survive it. To beat the game and return to the real world, they'll have to go on the most dangerous adventure of their lives, discover what Alan Parrish (Nick Jonas) left 20 years ago, and change the way they think about themselves, or they'll be stuck in the game forever...
Welcome to the Jungle abandons the physical board game shell of the original and upgrades it for a NES-esque game cartridge that operates like contemporary video games, a la Uncharted and Far Cry. This makes for a bit of a refreshing vitalization to the film's premise, but also serves as one of its major plot holes. The game just appears in the sand, and then magically turns itself from board game to game cartridge without any explanation. As if that weren't confounding enough, our four central clichés—err, I mean characters—stumble upon this game cartridge and system in the basement of their high school while serving time in detention. Before this chance encounter, the last place we saw the cartridge was in a kid's house. I find it hard to believe that a grieving parent would give the game system and game away to the school of all places. This hole in logical is never addressed, and is just there to get us out of the clichéd high school into the subversion of stereotypes that the games and jungle brings with it.
Just like a video game, the film's narrative is a bit weak in the ways of character development, especially at the beginning. The treacherous jungle terrain of the film's game relies on petty obstacles and chases to function as its primary driving force. A lot of the conflict stems from the group learning to put aside their differences and work together, but other than that, they're not met with much resistance from the bad guys. The Rock mows through everyone with graceful ease and never once finds his match, even when it comes down to facing off against the villain played by Bobby Cannavale, who is extremely underutilized. Cannavale is the weakest drawn character, coming off like a wannabe Marvel baddie, but what he lacks in character he makes up in being creepy as hell. Still, no matter what he tries throws at our heroes, they're never really slowed or even remotely hindered, which makes the action and thrills a little less exciting.
The film is more lighthearted than the 1995 film, and it never goes to the darknesses of the original; it's more concerned with being a fun, family-friendly blockbuster, and it succeeds in that regard. This reboot also suffers from the lack of quirky game characters that permeated the original, and the idea of a house transforming into a jungle is more intriguing than an actual trip to the jungle. There are a few callbacks to the original film. The treehouse that Nick Jonas' character lives in is a treehouse that Robin Williams' character would have constructed while he was stuck in the game. Also Bobby Cannavale plays Russel Van Pelt, which Jonathan Hyde played a different version of in the 1995 film. The Cannavale/Hyde connection is the most bizarre, since Hyde's version was older and would've taken place before the events of Welcome To The Jungle, and this connection isn't fully explained.
The performances here from Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, and Jack Black are truly the film's saving grace. The Rock is sweetly funny as the awkward nerd turned beefcake, and this may just be one of his best performances simply due to the sameness that embodies most of his roles. Kevin Hart is a good sport about being the butt of the jokes, and he dishes out one-liners like a master with deadly accuracy. Black is the true star here, however, and his soft, feminine voice greatly elevates the clichéd Bethany the scriptwriters have nailed to the page. Karen Gillan also manages to hold her own amongst her male co-stars, despite her idiotic lack of clothing that only serves the male gaze.
The film exudes lots of charm as the characters begin to work together, embracing one another's differences and building each other up. The game gives each character their missing piece, in a similar way to The Wizard of Oz; it teaches the jock and prep to be humble and unselfish, and the misfit and nerd how to be proud of who they are. The messages the film promotes are important ones, which could've been explored in greater effect, but are successful nonetheless.
The third act crumbles shortly after our characters beat the game, and there are a handful of weird moments that feel out of place. For no reason at all, The Rock briefly wants to stay within the game. He only has one life left, and his character had never expressed a desire to stay within his hunky avatar in the game's jungle prior to this point. The film also obeys the logic of the first film, wherein the character trapped within the game returns to their original timeline, but doesn't utilize it nearly as well as the original. The final act of flipping the stereotypically petty social hierarchy of high school on its ear is a nice sentiment, but kinda plays a bit false and forced.
Overall, the film is full of genuine enthusiasm and adventure. The performances are the heart of the film, and they make it an entertaining ride. There's ultimately one Jumanji for us, but they could've done way worse than Welcome to the Jungle. Definitely worth a watch, and is a solid offering from the quality slump that is January.
Rating: 3.5 hungry hippos outta 5.
What did you think of the film? Was it a welcome reboot, or a bastardization of your childhood? We want to know. Share your thoughts and feelings in the comments section below, and as always, remember to viddy well!