I wouldn’t call the original Jumanji a classic, but it was obviously a favorite for some executive at Sony.
A few years ago, they started remaking the film under different names. The first big example of it was Pixels, and they got a little closer to the dartboard with Goosebumps a few years later. Think about how simple the formula is. Take a high concept MacGuffin (video game-themed aliens, magical manuscripts that unleash monsters), add an ensemble of characters and a few simple character arcs, and then chase little CGI beasties around for a while until you beat the aliens/put them back in the book. Rinse. Repeat. Even the Ghostbusters reboot hewed pretty closely to this formula, making it look like the house favorite. Maybe all of that warm-up was worth it, because Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is an entirely agreeable and entertaining (if disposable) ride that should clean up with family audiences who get shut out of sold-out Star Wars showings.
Jake Kasdan has movies like this in his DNA, but his career hasn’t really gone in that direction, as he’s seemed much more comfortable in the character comedy end of the pool. His father, Lawrence Kasdan, pretty much defined the modern adventure movie with his script for Raiders of the Lost Ark, and there’s a playful quality to this Jumanji reboot that feels like Kasdan leaning into that legacy. Much like I would say RoboCop is one of the great comic book movies despite not being based on a real comic book, this might be the best video game movie so far despite not being based on an actual video game. The setup leans heavily on the language of every high school movie ever as we’re introduced to Spencer (Alex Wolff), Martha (Morgan Turner), Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain) and Bethany (Madison Iseman), four disparate teenagers who get Breakfast Clubbed into detention together, where they find and accidentally turn on a video game version of the magical game Jumanji. They are each asked to pick an avatar, and once they do, they are sucked into the machine, where the majority of the movie takes place.
What that means is that each of the teenagers is transformed into a movie star, and that’s where everyone has the most fun. Gawky Spencer becomes Dr. Smolder Bravestone, and Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson has a lot of fun playing the character. Martha becomes Karen Gillan (Guardians of the Galaxy) as Ruby Roundhouse, all long legs and bare midriff and short shorts and outrageous karate moves, and she’s like a first-time driver in a sports car, taking full advantage of the opportunity for physical comedy. Fridge, a huge football player in the real world, becomes Kevin Hart as Moose Finbar, the eternal sidekick to Dr. Bravestone, carrier of the inventory backpack, and a visual punchline for much of the film. Johnson and Hart have an easy comic chemistry, and both of them delight in playing against their appearances. However, no one has more fun with this avatar business than Jack Black, who’s playing Bethany, the stereotypical hot little blonde mean girl. From the moment she realizes she’s “a fat middle-aged man,” Black is constantly selling new variations on the joke. By far, the biggest laughs come from him trying to teach Karen Gillan how to be an alluring woman and flirt with the villain’s henchmen in order to distract them.
The video game reality stuff is played both as a joke and for plot mechanics. Each of our heroes gets three lives, and if they die a third time, they die for real. Everything’s set up in terms of clues and levels, and there’s a creepy bad guy played by Bobby Cannavale who is just about as deeply written as most video game bosses. He has some sort of animal powers that are vaguely explained and only occasionally used, and for the most part, he’s just used as a human punctuation mark on scenes where they need to have a bad guy push the plot forward. Kasdan’s far more interested in the comedy and in the character stuff, and he shows a light touch with action that is largely successful. It’s all sort of goofy and silly, and for once, I’m not remotely bothered by the way physics work for these characters. Most modern action movies have made the mistake of making everyone a superhero, whether they are or not, but here, there’s an actual excuse. It makes the “bug” a feature, narratively speaking.
Because they’re trying to play off of the aesthetics of modern video games, everything’s sort of garish and visually aggressive. Owen Paterson’s production design, Henry Jackman’s score, Gyula Pado’s cinematography… it’s all in service of this garish, hypercolored reality, and it is a uniform punch in the eyeballs. I wouldn’t say I like the look of the film, but it is appropriate. It’s a film that feels like everyone got the joke, and everyone committed to it, and with something like this, that is essential. Maybe now that Sony has literally made a new Jumanji, and done it fairly well, they can stop using this as the shape of all of their blockbusters. Mission accomplished, folks.
Running time: 119 minutes
Drew McWeeny | Chief Film Critic