‘Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle’ is a fun but unoriginal holiday distraction

This review for Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is spoiler-free.

Jumanji, the 1995 fantasy adventure featuring the world’s deadliest board game, was not—on the surface—a movie clamoring for a sequel. It’s a crowd-pleaser (one that made a bunch of money at the box office) that later became a frequent TV presence. Yet the announcement of another Jumanji movie still invoked an air of “is nothing sacred” from fans and casual viewers.

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle has enough subtle ties to connect to its predecessor without stampeding on the original like one of the game’s elephants. It’s a perfectly entertaining film that excels on the charm of its cast, but it’s sometimes weighed down by its own exposition and doesn’t leave much of a mark.

Yes, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is a proper sequel. While its start is nearly a direct continuation from the 1995 movie with a nod to the character Robin Williams portrayed, Welcome to the Jungle functions largely within its own, often virtual world. Instead of a board game, Jumanji is now a video game, having transformed itself so it can entice a new generation of players. This time around, it’s a group of high schoolers (a la Breakfast Club) who discover Jumanji in an old console while stuck in detention. After they turn the game on and pick their avatars, they’re sucked directly into the game.

Sony Pictures Entertainment/YouTube

Spencer (Alex Wolff), a knowledgeable and awkward gamer, becomes Dr. Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson), a muscular archaeologist who has literally no weaknesses. Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain) is the jock who turns into Franklin “Moose” Finbar (Kevin Hart), a zoologist and sidekick. Popular and image-obsessed Bethany (Madison Iseman) is now Shelly Oberon (Jack Black), a middle-aged cartographer with no cellphone. And Martha (Morgan Turner), a shy geek with her eyes set on Princeton, is now Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan), a skilled fighter who is instantly pissed about the outfit her avatar is wearing.

That outfit drew immediate backlash last year after Hart posted a photo of the cast together on social media—contrasting with the layers of clothes Gillan’s co-stars wore—with critics decreeing the out to be sexist. It’s reminiscent of the original Tomb Raider game, and considering how long the Jumanji game has probably been sitting around and collecting dust the connection is probably intentional, although it’s probably not an explanation that will sit with everyone. (And unlike other games that feature a scantily clad female character, one of the other characters eventually gives Martha a jacket to wear.)

Sony Pictures Entertainment/YouTube

The game itself, which the kids have to complete before they can exit, is pretty simple. The characters need to return a stolen gem to its original resting place to cure Jumanji (the place) of a curse. Van Pelt (Bobby Cannavale with a much different look than the character in the 1995 film with the same name) is trying to hunt them down for the jewel. All of that—and other gaming concepts including the concept of non-playable characters (NPCs), cutscenes, a listing of each character’s strengths and weakness, and how their lives in the game work—are all explained with some tongue-in-cheek nods to a bunch of video game tropes. Even the names are on the cheesy side.

The cast holds the film together and tells a coherent character story through sheer charm (and maybe a smolder or two). Each character is given moments to shine and grow, but Black—whose performance could’ve easily leaned completely on caricature—stands out, as does his rapport with Gillan’s Martha. There’s plenty of humor in the growing pains of testing the limits of their video game characters, in some of their characters’ deaths, and attempts to dupe henchmen who aren’t programmed to fight sentient video game characters.

Sony Pictures Entertainment/YouTube

Some of the film’s better moments are tucked between action and fight sequences, as several characters face the baggage that led them to Jumanji or awaits them once they make it out. The avatars may be archetypes, but the characters expand enough to avoid that trap.

Jumanji as a game isn’t complicated, and neither are many of the NPCs (non-player characters) Spencer, Fridge, Bethany, and Martha encounter through the game. The bazaar is little more than a backdrop for a level and otherwise, Jumanji looks nearly uninhabited. For all of its vast and beautiful landscapes, Jumanji feels very closed off as a place compared to the havoc the creatures and the original Van Pelt were able to cause in the 1995 movie. This version of Van Pelt, who can control animals and occasionally has insects crawl out of his ears, is forgettable, and the mission and levels themselves are rather flimsy. The threat and the stakes never feel real.

Sony Pictures Entertainment/YouTube

Did we really need a Jumanji sequel? Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle remixes the Jumanji game and offers a fun story—one that doesn’t solely rely on its own nostalgia. But I’m not exactly sure it adds anything beyond being a worthwhile distraction from holiday mayhem. 

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle debuts in theaters nationwide Dec. 20, 2017.

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