1995’s Robin Williams classic Jumanji holds a special place for me in the Great-But-Also-Kind-Of-Terrible Movie Hall of Fame. I watched this movie religiously growing up, to the point where I can rattle off quotes from the film in such a manner as to make people visibly uncomfortable with my presence. Perhaps it was the gamer in me entranced by the (to this day) VERY beautifully designed board game used in the movie, or maybe it was just something more innocent like a crush on young Kirsten Dunst. Better yet, maybe it was Robin Williams playing a protagonist far more reserved than usual, who only resorted to outlandish antics when the need arose for such things rather than making them a staple of the character. It could even have been the iconic and spell-binding African aesthetic that permeates the film, at least as far as the game and it’s influence is concerned. There are lions, stampedes of elephants and rhinos, monkeys, and even a big-game hunter, all of which come out of a board game using carved animal pieces as player tokens.
The whole thing is a blast from start to finish, even if it isn’t objectively all that good. It was a decent film a long time ago, which naturally made it perfect for a modern day high-polish Hollywood reboot.
As such a fan of the original film, but not so much Hollywood reboots decades down the line, I was skeptical about 2017’s Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle. A reboot starring The Rock, Kevin Hart, personal crush Karen Gillan, and the always lovable Jack Black? Where Jumanji is a…video game? That they get…sucked…in…to???
This was going to be a train-wreck, I was sure of it.
What made the original so compelling for me is that there were some very dramatic parts and the movie did a great job of interspersing them throughout an admittedly silly film. Alan’s struggles with his father are front and center in the entire film (to the point where the big-game hunter Alan fears is played by the same actor as his father) and the feelings of danger are very real throughout. Jumanji is a very real threat and takes the movie to a few dark places. The entire film played more like a race-against-time thriller: can they complete the game and stop Jumanji before it consumes their town?
I knew when I watched the trailer for Jumanji 2: Jungle Boogaloo that this new movie would be lacking all of the things that I loved so much about the original. The jungle I imagined in the original looks nothing at all like the jungle presented in the trailers for the new film. It was far too clean and well…too Hollywood. It didn’t look like the grungey, grimy, dark and depressing death-trap of a place that I had pictured the world inside Jumanji to be. These goofy new characters would not be going on any emotional journeys to confront their feelings towards their fathers. There wouldn’t be any grand moral lessons learned in a film starring Jack Black as a teenage girl.
Then why did I enjoy it so damn much???
That’s right, I actually ended up liking this film far more than I expected to. I think it was because I had accepted going in that this was Jumanji in name only, and was ready for an entirely different experience this time around. And boy, did I get one.
Despite the appearance of the original board game briefly at the beginning of the film (it took all I had not to WHOOP loudly in the theater when I saw it) and a passing reference or two to Alan Parish (Robin Williams’ character from the original) there was basically nothing connecting the two films except that both happened to feature things from a jungle called Jumanji. That was pretty much it. Tonally, thematically, and aesthetically they are two completely different films and I found that this actually worked in Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle’s favor. Because it knows what it wants to be and does a pretty damn good job of being that thing.
The teenage actors are serviceable, if underwhelming. But they’re not the focus of the film anyway and don’t feature in it too heavily, so this isn’t too bad. The Rock and Jack Black in particular seem to be having a lot of fun with their roles, as The Rock gets to try his hand at being a nerdy, insecure teenage boy while Jack Black tries his hand at an Instagram-obsessed teenage girl. Kevin Hart basically plays Kevin Hart, if that’s what you’re into. He was by no means bad, but the “Spunky short-guy” schtick that made him famous is on ABSOLUTE FULL display here as he plays a massive jock plugged into Kevin Hart’s manlet body and the film desperately tries to make sure you don’t forget this fact. It was Karen Gillan that played the relative straight-man (or straight-lady) in the film, as she gets to act like an overly serious girl with little experience in anything that isn’t academia. Despite not getting many of the punchlines, she does get one of the single best sight-gags in the film, showing off the comedy chops that she exercised so well in her run on Doctor Who.
But honestly, this is Jack Black’s film through and through. He absolutely kills it as the hot and preppy teenage girl Bethany, to the point where every time he was on screen I was truly imagining her character literally stuck in his chubby, middle-aged body. With the others (and Hart especially) there was a bit of disconnect at times where it was really obvious that these were just actors playing themselves, but with Black I bought that he was Bethany 100% of the film. He also happens to get most of the best lines (in my opinion) and is an absolute riot from start to finish. Every time he was on screen I was basically in stitches, and that’s coming from a person who’s been very critical of Black in the past. Needless to say, he impressed me and made the movie a lot more fun than it might have been otherwise.
I suppose there is a villain in the film, but he’s a very underwhelming one and completely forgettable. He really only exists to give the third act some stakes, but there aren’t any villains quite as menacing or as memorable as Jonathan Hyde’s hunter “Van Pelt” from the original. Even the jungle doesn’t feel quite as villainous this time around, with some of it’s animals and characters even serving as aids to the main characters rather than foils.
This movie basically serves as a showcase for the comedic chops of the four main leads. It’s very much a vehicle for their characters and their interactions, and the plot definitely plays second-fiddle to that.
I sincerely believe that this movie might have popped into existence as an intern asking “How crazy would it be if we made The Rock act like a nerd?” and everyone in the office sang his praises as they buckled down to figure out how to make that premise make even a modicum of sense. “What if we connected it to Jumanji?” some millennial with good taste might have suggested, but not before some out-of-touch elderly CEO responded with, “But kids don’t play board games anymore! Make it a vidjya game instead!” And all of his underlings were too scared to tell him that was a terrible idea, rolling their eyes and begrudgingly turning Jumanji into an equally-not-modern old gaming system that would make any kid today scream “WHAT YEAR IS IT?” and run in horror to their smartphones.
Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle wasn’t a bad film, but it was no Citizen Kane. But it also has the self-awareness to know that it isn’t trying to be, so you can’t fault it for embracing exactly what it is…a mainstream Hollywood popcorn blockbuster making you laugh and leaving you with little to think about afterwards. It set out to make people giggle at The Rock playing a nerd, Jack Black playing a teenage girl, and Kevin Hart playing Kevin Hart…and in that respect, it definitely rolled doubles.
I give this trip back to the jungle a 7/10.