Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Karen Gillan
Director: Jake Kasdan
Running Time: 115 mins
Synopsis: It has been 20 years since the magical board game Jumanji unleashed a bevy of giant animals and Robin Williams upon the world. Now it has evolved into something much more modern, a video game. After stumbling upon the game whilst in detention, 4 teenage students decide to play and end up sucked into the game itself as well as the bodies of its titular hero characters. In order to get home they must face an evil villain, their own fears and save Jumanji itself.
In the pantheon of much belated and slightly unnecessary sequels, of which there have been many over the years, a follow up to 1995’s Jumanji would seem likely to add to those ever increasing numbers. While the ’95 iteration features an unsurprisingly energetic Robin Williams performance and a fun high concept, it ranks as a mild family flick rather than an out and out classic. Far be it from Hollywood to let a solid idea go unused though, and yet thanks to a charismatic cast, witty script and lighthearted tone this unwanted sequel has turned out to be a major surprise.
A brief prologue sets up the stakes with barely time for any sense of sanity. The original mystical board game Jumanji, which for those unaware is a living breathing world full of exotic creatures, turns up on a beach and finds itself in the home of young Alex (Joe Jonas, yes one half of the tween idols that made up The Jonas Brothers). For reasons unapparent to us or in fact the writers (it’s one of those films-just go with it) it morphs itself into a video game where it proceeds to suck its players into the game world. This is 1996 and after Alex inevitably gets pulled into its mitts, we then leap forward 20 or so years. It is here the film sets out its four key protagonists, and whilst they’re not the most complicated characters (one is addicted to her phone, one is shy, one is a popular jock type and the other his former best friend turned lonely nerd) director Jake Kasdan (Bad Teacher) and the 4(!) credited writers sketch them out with broad efficiency. Roped into detention they discover the video game Jumanji and the adventure begins.
It is here where the film begins to kick in big time, for while the four teenage performers are all fairly capable, they are limited by the simplicity of the material. Never fear though for the films biggest trump card arrives at this point. You see the foursome have not just been sucked into this world as themselves, they have evolved into the avatars of their chosen game characters. The shy girl becomes the sexy ass kicking Ruby Roundhouse (Gillan), the tall popular guy becomes Moose Finbar (Kevin Hart), the phone obsessive chick turns into Professor Shelly Oberon (Jack Black-yes a dude) and the weaselly nerd morphs into the smouldering Dr Smoulder Bravestone (Johnson). Outside of the quite brilliant character names, it is a high concept that is played to the hilt. In some respects this could have turned out to be a one note wonder, Big but as an action film, and yet the cast deliver such unexpectedly earnest performances you’re with them the whole way. The script finding time to give them all standout moments even if the story that brings them all together is as thin as they come.
Broad strokes is the world of Jumanji is under threat from the animal controlling villain played by Bobby Cannavale (trying but given little to do), and the team must locate a missing jewel that must be returned to its sacred resting place, restoring order and sending them back home. That is pretty much it, and whilst no one is going to be coming to this film for nuanced story beats, it does give proceedings a sense of dramatic weightlessness. Thankfully Kasdan uses it as a backdrop for some hugely funny set-pieces. Most of these focus on the group attempting to grapple with their new bodies, and in a clever move their souped up strengths. Being a video game there is a lot of playful nods to the structure and cliches of computer gaming. In game characters, like Rhys Darby’s jovial guide, are locked into pre-conceived mechanics, whilst the rampant sexism of the industry is given an acute edge in the frequently commented sexualisation of Gillan’s character. Thanks to her performance though she is no mere eye candy, rather a formidable bad ass fighter. The shyness of the girl populating her is given an adorable slant by Gillan, as a woman not entirely comfortable in her own body she becomes an empowering message of how confidence is something earned from within. A scene of her learning to flirt is pure hilarity using Gillan’s often underused comedic talents.
It isn’t just her though, this is a true ensemble with each given a chance to breathe and get their moment. Hart is brash and energetic as always, but tempers it enough so his wisecracking doesn’t overwhelm, of which he has certainly been guilty of in the past. Johnson is ostensibly the lead here but never dominates. His performance wonderfully silly as he grapples with the fact that he is really just a skinny wuss. Of course it wouldn’t be Dwayne Johnson if he didn’t rise up to be an all-conquering tough guy, but the journey feels earned and it gives him plenty of opportunity to mine his keen sense of comedy timing he showcased in The Other Guys, Central Intelligence et al. Not to mention that immensely dexterous face of his, contorting his expressions for maximum comedic impact. The standout, although only just, is Jack Black, having a whale of a time pretending to be a young selfie obsessed drama queen. Pursing his lips and moaning like a petulant girl he commits entirely to what is a very silly role. A moment where he discovers the joys of having a penis is one of the funniest scenes this year, albeit one that younger members of the audience may not fully grasp.
The interplay between them is warm and full of fast paced quips, albeit it does get bogged down in some listless ‘drama’ which while understandable from a narrative sense takes away from the fun of the overall picture. Joe Jonas also returns and is a capable player, despite being saddled with a potentially potent realisation of just how long he has been in the game and what that entails should he return to the real world, that ultimately never goes deep enough. It’s like the writers had original attempts to make this more dramatic but hesitated in case it wobbled the tone. As it stands now it feels more like an afterthought, only coming into play in a final scene that confuses rather than emotes.
These are but minor flaws though in a film desperate that you just have a great time at the movies. Pacing wise it moves briskly, with a selection of well staged action sequences to space out the comedy set-pieces and production values are solid. The less said about the horrific score the better mind you. Far too over the top and sounding like it came out of a cheap 90s TV show rather than a Hollywood blockbuster. As a whole though Welcome to the Jungle can stand tall as a belated sequel that whilst never completely justifying its existence, at least knows exactly what it wants to be and works hard to be as entertaining as possible. It’s also hugely refreshing to see no attempt whatsoever at setting up further instalments, although I’d give it another 22 years before we can firmly say that!
Verdict: A welcome surprise. Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle uses its committed charismatic cast, a fun script and far fetched concept to deliver a hugely enjoyable pre-Christmas family flick.