Review: Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle
The board game Jumanji from the original 1996 film Jumanji, which was based on 1981 children’s book Jumanji, makes an appearance very early on in Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, before turning itself into a video game because, you know, magic. The fundamental elements that made the original so much fun are gone—no dice tossing and no wild animals bursting into the real world. The film instead is a take on the video game medium (if anything, this might be the most referential video game movie that’s not based on a video game). It won’t win over fans of the original—the ominous tribal drums are all that remain—but it does succeed in delivering a mostly kid-friendly, comedy-driven diversion.
In the film, four kids end up together in detention and stumble onto the four-player, jungle adventure Jumanji video game. They’re then sucked into the game and become their avatars—the nerdy gamer becomes Dr. Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson), the football player becomes ‘Mouse’ Finbar (Kevin Hart), the narcissistic, Instagram-obsessed girl becomes ‘Shelly’ Oberon (Jack Black), and the mousy bookworm becomes Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillian). It’s a trope we’ve seen before in any other body-switching movie; our heroes inhabit bodies that make them reevaluate their own lives—the nerd gets some newfound courage, the pretty girl is no longer concerned with looks, and so on and so forth, you get it. But, what elevates the proceedings are the performances by the four leads.
Johnson plays the nerdy kid inhabiting the body of Bravestone, a badass, Indiana Jones-on-steroids type. He’s got Hulk-size biceps, yet he’s scared half to death of the mandated jungle quest, and Johnson sells every moment of teenage uncertainty. Hart plays the below-than-average-height zoologist and essentially plays the easily-excitable, quick-talker he’s played before, but it suits his character here. Karen Gillan shines as the kickass Tomb Raider-esque character, who underneath her ‘dance fight’ expert is a shy social outcast. In one scene, Gillian and Johnson’s avatars’ characters’ while they’re still in their avatars, admit they have a thing for each other, and share the strangest, most hilarious onscreen kisses two blockbuster action stars have ever shared.
The highlight of the entire film is Jack Black and whatever the hell he’s doing, playing a teenage girl stuck in the body of Jack Black. He straddles the line of flat-out effeminate caricature and multi-layered character work—it certain is hard to elevate the cornucopia of dick jokes here. Black goes all in, though, and it’s indeed a sight to see. He dives so deep that, thanks to him, the film pulls off a romantic subplot between Jack Black and Nick Jonas, who is also a game avatar. It would take too long to explain how weird this actually is; remember Black is playing a young girl in the body of a middle-aged man. And it's all capped off by a reveal at the end that is still pretty flabbergasting—but, hey, it works thanks to Black’s commitment.
The action is blockbuster fluff, and the main villain (Bobby Cannavale) is as standard as you can get—it is a damn shame Cannavale is just going through the motions. It’s clear that director Jake Kasdan’s (Orange County, Walk Hard, Sex Tape) main concern is the comedy and consistent fun vibe the film exudes. It says a lot that Rhys Darby is a scene-stealer in the film in the limited time he’s on screen, playing a computer-generated character; he gets some of the film’s funniest lines and his moments stick around longer than any action beat. I can’t fault the film for its we-should-accept-our-faults message, too. Overall, if you’re looking for a big, loud, and funny action-adventure film with some standout comedic performances (that’s filled with maybe too many dick jokes?), you can’t go too wrong with Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, just don’t expect much else.