JUMANJI: WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE: Perfectly Passable Family-Friendly Fun
Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is a surprising treat, modernizing the original film while also creating a fun, lively action-adventure.
When news of a Jumanji reboot first emerged, the public was notably not on board. The first film has its share of detractors, and overall hasn’t aged exceptionally well, yet it’s still a nostalgically enjoyable film for a lot of people (myself included). In addition, it seemed disrespectful to make a complete remake after the unfortunate demise of Robin Williams, who had died only a year prior to the announcement of the film’s premiere date.
As a response to this, Sony Pictures decided to make a sequel instead of a reboot, set 20 years after the original film’s events. The result is Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, a surprisingly fun, family-friendly romp. In an age where 20-year-later sequels can often be a disaster, relying too intently on nostalgic value of the originals and often overly doused in modern CGI (looking at you, Independence Day: Resurgence), Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle stands head and shoulders above the rest.
Modern day adaptation
Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle focuses on five high school kids who are all sent to detention for various reasons. They are: nerdy Spencer Gilpin (Alex Wolff), pretty cheerleader Bethany Walker (Madison Iseman), football player Anthony “Fridge” Johnson (Ser’Darius Blain), and rebellious bookworm Martha Kaply (Morgan Turner). Finding an old video game console in the basement where they are assigned to clean up, they play the only game they can find, called Jumanji.
Soon after they each select a character, though, they are suddenly sucked into the screen, waking up as five different people completely isolated within a jungle – Spencer becomes Dr. Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson), Bethany becomes Professor Sheldon “Shelly” Oberon (Jack Black), Fridge becomes Franklin “Mouse” Finbar (Kevin Hart), and Martha becomes Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan).
Nostalgic, but minimally so
Welcome to the Jungle is a film that easily could have used the original Jumanji as a nostalgic crutch, utilizing everything that made that film enjoyable and simply altering it slightly with better modern special effects. But thankfully, other than a few nods, such as the jungle premise itself, which is the very same place that Robin Williams‘ Alan Parish was trapped for 26 years, the film is very much its own entity. An analogous nod is also where Nick Jonas‘s character comes in, having become trapped in the game years prior to the four new characters coming in now.
Taking place entirely within this jungle environment as opposed to the real world, Welcome to the Jungle is not only modernized (after all, who plays board games anymore?), but it is also more akin to an immersive adventure, in a way much like this year’s earlier Kong: Skull Island or any of a multitude of lost-in-the-jungle concept films.
To be sure, the premise of this “game” is very predictable, which consists of transporting a jewel to its original location on top of a mountain shaped like a jaguar in order to rid Jumanji of its curse and return to the real world. The villains, helmed by big-bad John Hardin (Bobby Cannavale) are mostly disposable, who simply come at the heroes in hordes, only to be fought off by their various abilities.
Yet, much like your standard video game, there’s also a lot of fun to be had in Welcome to the Jungle. Each character is given certain strengths and abilities; for example, Dr. Smolder Bravestone (Johnson) is the strongest and fastest of the group, with no known weaknesses, while Moose (Hart) is riddled with weaknesses, including, for some reason, cake. The only woman of the group, Ruby Roundhouse (Gillan), known as a “killer of men,” is able to hold her own despite, as she mentions “a completely inappropriate outfit for the jungle.” Each player is also blessed with three lives, much like a video game. The film does tend to overdo it a bit when it comes to the deaths; for example, a character will live past a rough, dangerous moment only to savagely die by something silly, yet it’s all mostly in good fun.
Welcome to the Jungle‘s kooky premise could easily have been used for cheap laughs and lazy writing scenarios. Yet the film is instead surprisingly cogent and well-developed. The characters, instead of simply jumping from one action scene to the next, are given time to breathe and interact, getting to know each other in the process (and their true selves behind their fictional avatars as well).
The laughs are often earned, ranging from physical comedy to such risqué concepts as the wide-eyed wonder at suddenly discovering that you have the opposite genitalia. Director Jake Kasdan, known mostly for adult-oriented romps such as Bad Teacher or Sex Tape, here (other than a couple moments) creates a decidedly more family-friendly tone.
What makes the film especially ripe for comedic scenarios is the fact that these people are all meant to be kids in adult bodies, which allows each of the actors the opportunity to show the awkward angst of youth. It’s essentially Big meets the aforementioned Kong: Skull Island.
Predictable, but not to its detriment
Admittedly, if you were to guess the overall moral takeaway for Welcome to the Jungle, you’d probably be correct: each person is thematically or wistfully connected to the avatar that they subsequently become. The nerdy, skinny Spencer becomes the bold, fearless leader, the overconfident, tall Fridge becomes the short, helpless zoologist, the standoffish outsider Martha becomes a pristine badass, and, in perhaps the most entertaining body switch, the self image-obsessed pretty girl becomes an overweight, middle-aged man (in a delightful performance by Jack Black).
The resultant body switches lead each character to not only have fun with their newfound abilities, but to discover something about themselves as well. By becoming separated from the identities they have created for themselves, they are able to see things literally through another point of view, and come away with a newfound perspective on life.
None of this is unexpected from the outset, of course, but Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle approaches it with a surprising amount of sincerity as well, refraining from clichés wherever possible and simply allowing the characters to learn through trial and error, forming a believable arc for each of them by the film’s conclusion.
In addition, the film has much to say about the politics of high school. By being separated from the digital devices and social clicks that often keep people within their own little bubbles (and yes, Breakfast Club comparisons are not out of place), it shows the importance of human interaction, and of cooperating with one another to achieve our respective end goals. Ironically, it takes a virtual video game for the characters of the film to become closer together, but perhaps that is just another reason to appreciate it all the more. Technology, when used the right way, can have quite beneficial results.
Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle – Conclusion
To conclude, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is an unexpected treat. While reflective of the original’s premise, it also expands on it, modernizing the idea of a game brought to life by creating an expansive jungle world. It allows its characters ample room to develop, in addition to thematically showing a unique perspective on how to live their normal everyday lives in the process.
The eventual result of the film is far from groundbreaking or original – but for a 20-year-later sequel, it’s hard to get more entertaining than Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle.
What are your thoughts? Are you a fan of the original Jumanji?
Jumangi: Welcome to the Jungle arrives in theaters on December 20. For international release dates, click here.
Opinions expressed in our articles are those of the authors and not of the Film Inquiry magazine.