Overview: A group of teenagers discover the cursed game that transports people into a forbidden jungle. Sony Pictures Entertainment; Rated PG-13; 119 minutes; 2017.
Adventurers Beware! And Be Excited: Legacy sequels have proven to be a mixed bag at best. When a film beckons audiences to return to a long gestating return, more often than not said film repeats beats. Sometimes the similar construction in plot and ideas allows for the filmmakers to let loose on the technical aspects. The simple approach doesn’t mean it can’t be elegant or invigorating. Look no further than reactions to films like Creed and The Force Awakens. In Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, it works two-fold. The film opens with a modern Breakfast Club riff, only for that to be hijacked by Jumanji. What follows in Welcome to the Jungle is a film that takes the admiration many have for Jumanji and effortlessly plants it into a wholly new identity. It’s a sequel but one that doesn’t even need to justify its own existence.
There’s a scary implication to the legacy of Jumanji, where the cursed game shape-shifts to appeal itself to every new generation. Horror buried beneath the fantastical. Now, the board game is a video game discovered by a disparate group of teenagers, each sucked into the game after choosing their player avatars. As such, Welcome to the Jungle also gets to poke at the sheer ridiculous sensibilities of AAA gaming, with avatars either over-the-top or problematic in appearance. Why does Karen Gillan’s character wear a crop top and short shorts in the jungle? The film has no hesitation in the gender politics of gaming, while still allowing Gillan’s character to become a hero on her own terms. We follow insecure teenagers through this adventure where they – to no one’s surprise – learn to discover their true selves. It isn’t about appearance, it’s about who these kids truly are. Again, there’s nothing groundbreaking here but it is a reliable narrative with some truly entertaining bells and whistles. Many of which rely on the star-power of the video game avatars.
Those Who Seek to Find: There’s something to be said about the blockbuster set piece. In terms of pacing, construction and editing, it should be a negative that Welcome to the Jungle has a few that aren’t great. They’re definitely entertaining but the rhythm of them can get a little wonky. The reason why they all end up working is entirely in the characters. They bounce off one another like they’ve been making films with one another for years. Even when they’re at one another’s throats or insecurities are reaching new heights, these fictional characters remain authentic. As individuals, the performers light the ignition on the absurdity and ground it with their reality.
Karen Gillan remains a highlight of any major feature she stars in. Where the other performers are broad archetypes (purposefully so, and done tastefully), Gillan’s “Ruby Roundhouse” actively plays against tropes, as well as actively resenting the sexualized appearance of her character – because honestly, how is this still a thing? There is no reason why Gillan shouldn’t be headlining more of her own films in the future.
Jack Black’s comedic sensibilities rely on his ability to project his voice but his physical presence remains one worth admiring. He isn’t afraid to project his physicality to the same level of his didactic voice. It’s not quite slapstick but it remains attention grabbing and obtuse in a consistently crowd pleasing manner.
Kevin Hart and Dwayne Johnson continue their chemistry from Central Intelligence with performances that never fail to bring humanity to archetypes. When both are misused by a film, they don’t achieve much beyond charisma. Thanks to a sharp script and Jake Kasdan’s direction, Welcome to the Jungle may confirm these two may be one of Hollywood’s secret dynamic duos.
Director Jake Kasdan (Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story) has a knack for broad comedy with actual empathy. He brings it to even his smaller television work, where he is able to capture laugh out loud interactions but never failing to bring out emotion through it. Comedy is meant to serve character and story rather than be an interjection between moments. It’s actually impressive how fluidly this film moves too. Credit has to be given to writers Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers, Scott Rosenberg, Jeff Pinkner and Kasdan himself. The original Jumanji is not a monumental property but it holds a special place in many viewers hearts, as well as this reviewer’s.
Overall: To wit, Welcome to the Jungle does lack more of the buoyant Joe Johnston whimsy but it isn’t striving for that. It carves its own path into a cast whose chemistry is infectious and odd slapstick never ceased to make me chuckle. And no one will fault it for a lack of heart. For those worrying about the legacy of the cult classic and anyone looking for family entertainment during the holidays, you’d have a hard time not enjoying the heck out of this romp.