Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle bears little resemblance to the original 1995 Jumanji, but a charismatic modern cast and excellent humor make for an easygoing, fun ride.
The film involves four teenagers stuck in detention cleaning the basement of their high school, who stumble upon the titular Jumanji and decide to play it. However, the supernatural board game of the original film has since updated itself into the form of a retro video game console to appeal to modern players. Once plugged in, Jumanji transports the teens into a jungle populated by various man-eating animals and a villainous faction of hunters led by the mercenary Van Pelt (Bobby Cannavale). The teenagers have been transformed into adventurers within the game, and are told that they must return the Jaguar’s Eye jewel to the massive jaguar statue in the center of the jungle before Van Pelt and his men can get ahold of it.
The film’s plot sounds simplistic because it is, and its simplicity is entirely intentional. But there’s a twist. The four teens, who each embody different high school stereotypes, find themselves inhabiting video game avatars that are the opposite of their real life personalities. Nerdy Spencer Gilpin becomes fearless and renowned adventurer Dr. Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson); football jock Anthony “Fridge” Johnson is downsized into wimpy zoologist Franklin “Mouse” Finbar (Kevin Hart); shrinking violet Martha Kaply becomes martial arts master Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan); and popular blonde Bethany Walker is transformed into tubby cartographer Sheldon Oberon (Jack Black). The actors do a great job of channeling the teenagers’ respective personalities, which are at extreme odds with their physical forms.
The film’s video game setting is also highly self-referential. The characters each have three lives, and the people within the game have a limited amount of dialogue, as in a traditional role-playing game. The main villain, Van Pelt, is one-dimensionally evil, mimicking early video game antagonists. Each avatar has stated strengths and weaknesses, and in order to beat the game, the kids have to work together through a series of increasingly difficult tasks as they go deeper into the jungle.
What sets Jumanji apart from similar films is just how hilarious it is. Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is genuinely one of the funniest films in recent years, thanks to a sharp script and committed performances by the stars. Jack Black deserves special mention for an utterly convincing portrayal of a self-obsessed, image-conscious teenage girl who hits on hot guys in the game and realizes that losing her phone enhances her other physical senses. Gillan and Johnson are endearing as the outwardly-attractive but extremely socially awkward Martha and Spencer, who attempt and butcher their first kiss.
One of the best parts of the film occurs when Bethany, as an overweight middle-aged man, has to teach Martha how to flirt so she can distract two mercenaries while the others sneak into an airplane hangar. Every character gets their moment to shine, and the jokes are almost always on point. Still, the film is not devoid of emotional depth. Jumanji hits the right beats for a teen film about kids thrust into an unfamiliar situation, and forced to overcome their personal differences to return home. Through these wild circumstances, they end up learning valuable lessons about themselves, and each other. Of course, these moments are secondary to the gleeful, straightforward jungle romp that Jumanji is first and foremost.
Despite early doubts about being yet another tasteless remake of a classic film, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle exceeds expectations as a solid holiday film to entertain the whole family. Aside from one small nod, this film has almost nothing to do with its predecessor, opting for charismatic original characters over mythos-laden references to the original film. To any moviegoers who may have felt let down by Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Jumanji might be just the best action-comedy remedy.