Plot: When four teenagers in detention discover an old video game console with a game they’ve never heard of, they are immediately thrust into the game’s jungle setting, into the bodies of their avatars. What they discover is that you don’t just play Jumanji - Jumanji plays you. They’ll have to go on the most dangerous adventure of their lives, or they’ll be stuck in the game forever…
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Back in the 90’s, a little movie called Jumanji (1995) made a big splash, thanks in large part to its main star, Robin Williams. Since his passing, there have seemed to be a lot of sequels that could have been made but were put on hiatus, since no one can really replace Robin Williams. And then, suddenly, there was Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle.
But how could they be doing a sequel without Robin Williams? Was this 20-year-overdue Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle going to be any good? Or is Hollywood beating another dead horse?
Dwayne Johnson leads the cast of Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle. While he’s taken on all sorts of action roles (including the recent Rampage (2018) and upcoming Skyscraper (2018)), he hasn’t fared as well with comedies (anyone else want to dredge up Tooth Fairy (2010)?). But, with this film, he manages to both be the action hero and poke fun at himself all at the same time. And, boy, does it work! Since he’s an avatar in a game, the skinny teenager occupying him gets to show through, and Dwayne seems to enjoy communing with that awkward nerd inside himself. It’s a great casting choice, and just the start of the fun in Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle.
Jack Black, on the other hand, seems to be having a blast channeling the female teen inside of him in Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle. As expected, that’s just as funny as it sounds, and the viewer will join in on the laughter when Jack Black does his thing. In fact, this is the best role for Jack Black in some time (probably since Tropic Thunder (2008)), and a far cry from the idiot he portrayed in films like Shallow Hal (2001) and Orange County (2002).
Kevin Hart, who is the avatar for a large football player nicknamed “Fridge”, basically plays the same character he always does in Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle. Like most of his movies, however, that’s a good thing. He gets to spout his normal Kevin-isms, and be the kind of annoying but likable guy he got to be so good at in Ride Along (2014). Since that film, he seems to have found his niche, playing the funnier modern-day Chris Tucker over and over again…and viewers should eat up this latest version.
While Karen Gillan isn’t as well-known as her fellow cast members in Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, she’s given a bit less to do, as she actually is the least changed when her teenager switches to avatar form. In fact, her character could be the grown-up version of the teenage girl who takes on her avatar, albeit in a fantasy karate-kicking way. Her chemistry with Dwayne Johnson is spot-on, as well, and the two, who have so embodied their teenage alter-egos, are fun to watch stumble along the first tentative steps of teen love.
With such a strong cast leading the way in Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, viewers might originally expect there to be a Robin Williams replacement in the cast. Thankfully, however, the filmmakers went the opposite way, making the long-lost boy in the game Nick Jonas. That actually works on several levels, as it dissuades any comparisons to Robin Williams (Jonas doesn’t even try to be funny), and since his acting isn’t on par with the dynamic foursome, he seems to embody the outcast he’s supposed to be portraying. Smart move, filmmakers!
But what about the story? Thankfully, the filmmakers took the original concept, and updated it perfectly for today by transforming the old board game into a video game. Thankfully, they thought it out pretty well, as Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle plays just like it is a video game. Even when they are running (and some running much faster than others), it looks like something from a video game (or the cheesy effects from TWILIGHT. See, you silly vamps, that effect could be good…just not in your movie!).
Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle has even managed to keep the sillier aspects from the video game world as well. Whether it’s non-player characters that just repeat specific items (no matter how many times you talk to them), or the cut-scenes that showcase what the bad guys are up to, or the combo sequences that result in higher attack power, the film ties in enough of the video game industry to be relevant, even without making the film too far into that world that non-players won’t enjoy it.
With a strong cast of main characters, a strong update to the original theme that keeps it relevant (and with just brief nods of nostalgia), and a well thought-out tie-in to actual video game silliness (like how Gillan’s obvious Tomb Raider homage puts notice to how ridiculous her clothes are for what she’s doing), Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is surprisingly fun.
A strong update, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is actually a better sequel than it has any right to be, at least on paper. Sure, there’s no Robin Williams, and 22 years is a bit long to wait for a sequel, but this film manages to pull it off. And that is definitely a good thing.