The family adventure film Jumanji is not a movie that really requires a sequel. The tragic death of Robin Williams in 2014 was marked a year later when Sony Pictures announced they would be making a sequel to Jumanji. Many fans saw this as an insult and a cheap cash grab on the property name. However, with the announcement of the cast and premise, things were looking up. So, colour everyone surprised when Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, turned out to be a big, fun romp. Nostalgia, star power, great comedy, and an old school sense of family fun helped make the film enjoyable, even if it has no need or right to exist.
The 1995 film, based around a supernatural board game, was quite the downbeat, depressing affair, despite being an adventure movie. In fact, it could easily have been classified as a psychological horror film. Robin Williams’ character Alan Parish, was sucked into Jumanji, and escaped twenty-six years later, only to discover his parents were dead, his hometown in disarray, and his best friend Sarah (Bonnie Hunt) is a traumatised recluse. Jumanji itself is never treated with charm, but tension and dread. The animals and other threats are more frightening than fun – even the monkeys! There is a heavy sense of loss, grief, and the game itself enforces lessons to be learnt upon its victims.
The sequel, on the other hand, is the complete opposite. Brightly coloured, relying mostly on action and comedy, and any sense of bleakness and drama are brief. The film opens with a teenager, Alex Vreeke, receiving the Jumanji board game after it is found on a beach years after Alan Parish got rid of it. There could be potential stories to tell in those years. Heck, the first film opened with a scene set in the 19th century. I’m not against the idea of a Jumanji film series, and there is potential that deserves exploration. Anyway, Alex refuses to play the game, prompting to sentient game to re-invent itself as a video game. Alex is then sucked into the game.
Twenty years later, four teenagers are placed in detention for various reasons: The nerd Spencer Gilpin (Alex Wolff), his former friend Anthony “Fridge” Johnson (Ser’Darius Blain), selfie-obsessed Bethany Walker (Madison Iseman), and introverted Martha Kaply (Morgan Turner). They aren’t the most developed, but expand beyond their archetypes throughout the film, mostly thanks to what happens when they find Jumanji in their school basement. Each of them choose a game avatar (the fifth unavailable), and are sucked into the game in their new character forms.
Spencer becomes the muscular adventurer Dr. Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson); Fridge is the short-stacked zoologist and weapons specialist Franklin “Mouse” Finbar (Kevin Hart); Martha is the commando and dance fighter Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan); and Bethany finds herself trapped in the body of the overweight, male cartographer Professor Sheldon Oberon (Jack Black). This is a clever twist, placing the teenage archetypes in the roles of characters who are their opposites. They learn they must complete the in-game missions to return home, by obtaining the Jaguar’s Eye gem from the evil Van Pelt (Bobby Cannavale) and placing it atop an enormous jaguar statue (which by no means resembles the one glimpsed in Black Panther).
The group venture through Jumanji’s jungle, facing threats as they come, and evade Van Pelt’s evil biker gang. They are eventually joined by the trapped Alex in his character avatar of Seaplane McDonough (Nick Jones), who remains unaware how long he has been trapped. In both a weird move and a nice touch, Alex lives in Alan Parish’s old house, out in the open for all to approach. Kind of a step backwards after Alan’s tales of horror about the jungle.
I spent most of my life haunted by Alan’s description of how he hid and survived in the deepest, darkest, most nightmarish, trauma-inducing jungle in existence. And when we finally see the jungle, it is completely devoid of any sense of Lovecraftian horror. Aside from the evil biker gang and the occasional animal, the jungle is relatively harmless and serves as just a setting rather than being a threat. Where are the killer plants? The giant mosquitoes? The iconic stampede shows up, and the crazy monkeys get a mention, having crashed a plane. And, heavens above, what did they do to Van Pelt?
The Van Pelt in the original film, played by Jonathan Hyde, was an unstoppable, ruthless hunter who wanted Alan dead for merely existing. He also served as a dark reflection of Alan’s broken relationship with his father (also played by Hyde). In the sequel, Van Pelt is reimagined as a boring mercenary wearing eye shadow, and has gained an ability to control the jungle’s animals via the powers of the Jaguar’s Eye. It is fine to modernise the character as the board game itself did, but he has no real impact on the story or our heroes. There is a hint of a relationship with Seaplane McDonough, but because we didn’t really get to know Alex much prior to his abduction, Van Pelt’s former role as a more personal antagonist is lost. Though, he does have a creepy-looking vulture for a pet. That’s a bonus point.
The reimagining of Jumanji as a video game allows for a lot of fun, even if it does limit the more unpredictable nature of the game itself. The script makes fun of a lot of gaming tropes from the 90s. For instance, Ruby Roundhouse wears a tank top and shorts in the jungle. Fans shouted outcry, accusing the filmmakers of pure fan service. This turned out to be intentional, mocking how games do this, and is even commented on by Martha during the film. All of the characters in the games, save the avatars and strangely Van Pelt, are all NPCs, and can only speak in so many ways. Even when the heroes lose in-game lives and spawn again, they crash land in dramatic poses. While the more dangerous spontaneity of Jumanji is lost, its transformation offers some new possibilities and more hootenanny.
The highlight of the film is the comedy. Johnson, Gillan, Hart, and Black all have great chemistry and are an absolute laugh riot. Their characters, at least on paper, could easily be the heroes of some wacky jungle thriller – the botch adventurer, the hot badass chick, the snarky sidekick, and the nerdy scientist. Thanks to the personalities of the teenagers, these stereotypes become very different. Spencer finds himself as the badass hero but is very cautious and frightened of squirrels. Fridge becomes disgruntled with being a slow, short sidekick to his former friend. The shy, introverted Martha is horrified when she ends up as Lara Croft-esque figure. And, well, Bethany. Her adaptation comes with a lot of laughs and
By far, Jack Black steals the show, and plays the role of a self-absorbed girl in a middle-aged, overweight man’s body perfectly. I also like that Bethany’s character never once becomes a total stuckup dumbass. She cares for the others, never insults a person’s looks (beyond her own), and helps Martha learn how to flirt for the greater good. Beyond the fact that the players face actual death in the game, which serves as a way to extend the tension, there isn’t much at stake in the film. Nevertheless, the lingering omen of death or entrapment allows the characters to rethink their lives and friendships.
Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle doesn’t take many risks with its premise, but does offer a whole lot of fun and entertainment. If another film was to be done, I’d like there to be a stronger balance of drama and comedy, and make the game itself a bit more malevolent and supernatural. Definitely worth the watch if you are a fan of the original film, and it honours the memory and legacy of Robin Williams.
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