So, it’s come to this: Hollywood’s increasingly desperate search for IP — any IP — that can be mined for a few coppers has led to Jumanji. The 1995 Joe Johnston original, based on Chris Van Allsburg’s book, is perhaps best remembered for groundbreaking (at the time) CGI and a fun Robin Williams lead turn, but it was built on the fascinating idea of a mischievous board game that comes to life. That’s a concept good enough to generate a dozen movies, so here we are with a very belated sequel. It’s cynical enough to make you roll your eyes, so here’s something to wash away that weariness: Jumanji: Welcome To The Jungle is something of a quiet delight.
Of course, board games are not sexy enough anymore, so Jake Kasdan and his team of writers get that out of the way in a prologue with a sly comment on Hollywood’s need to reboot things, having the sentient Jumanji transform itself into a Nintendo-style video game. It’s a fun idea — once our heroes are sucked into the game’s world, it allows Kasdan and co to have a lot of fun with video game tropes; the idea that the movie’s characters only have three in-game lives not only nicely imbues the film with something close to stakes, it allows the big-name cast to live-die-repeat in a series of inventive set-pieces.
Jumanji: Welcome To The Jungle is something of a quiet delight.
But it’s that cast who make the film such a pleasant surprise. After getting to know their vaguely Breakfast Club real-world counterparts (nerd, jock, princess, basket case) in the first 20 minutes, the switch to Jumanji’s jungle world ports them into avatars and unleashes the big names, doing just enough with the archetypes they play to keep things interesting for them and us. So the gangly nerd (Alex Wolff) becomes Dwayne Johnson’s Dr Smolder Bravestone; imposing US football player Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain) winds up as a mini-fridge in the teeny-tiny shape of Kevin Hart; the basket case (Morgan Turner’s Martha) becomes hotpants-wearing sex object Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan); and vacuous It Girl Bethany (Madison Iseman) winds up as her worst nightmare: a tubby brainbox named Shelly Oberon (Jack Black). Watching them spar verbally (and sometimes physically) with each other, while playing against type, is a constant joy.
Admittedly, there aren’t a ton of bellylaughs, rather a stream of constant chuckles, but it feels churlish to quibble: chemistry like this is very rare. So it’s a shame when the group’s ranks are bolstered by a new member (identity redacted), who doesn’t quite possess the comedy chops of his counterparts.
Weirdly, for a film in which anything can happen due to the ‘living video game’ conceit, it all gets a little predictable (you could set your watch by the scenes of emotional growth that follow major action beats), while Bobby Cannavale’s scorpion-loving bad guy is so inconsequential that they probably should have consigned him to a cut scene. But when the main quartet are together, bickering, dance-fighting or eating too much cake, this is a lovely welcome.