Director: Jake Kasdan
Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Karen Gillan, Kevin Hart, Jack Black and Ryhs Darby
Release Date: 20 Dec
Nostalgia can be a strength or weakness in equal measure when dealing with overdue sequels. Star Wars: The Force Awakens positively wallowed in it, which is what made it so appealing for some and wearying for others. Jumanji plainly rejects this route. Rather than riding in the passenger seat, it respectfully tips its hat to the original before speeding off to do its own thing.
The plot sees four high school students sharing detention, cleaning out an old computer room in their school. They stumble upon a mystical video game that, when booted up, sucks all four of them into the exotic jungle fantasy-land that is Jumanji.
Welcome to the Jungle is better than the cynics will admit and an ideal holiday movie i.e. mindlessly fun and not overly taxing. Its most notable quality is how far it distances itself from the original film. Tonally, it is miles apart, with one polite acknowledgement of Robin Williams’s character anchoring it in the franchise. While the 1995 movie was rather sweet and emotionally driven, this is a more casual affair, peppered with innuendo and moments of slapstick akin to a teen comedy.
It’s a smart move, making comparisons between the two almost impossible. The only contrast that must begrudgingly be made is that it noticeably lacks the same creativity as the original. While Jumanji forced new and exciting elements into play with every roll of the dice, this updated version is a more organic jungle trek. The group carefully avoids wild animals while fleeing from a group of bike-riding bandits who are trying to steal a plot McGuffin in their possession. And while that is technically a plus, you can’t help but wish for something like the quicksand and spiders sequence from the original to break up all the motorcycle chases.
Free from the shackles of nostalgia however, Welcome to the Jungle is a surprisingly serviceable amusement park ride. The main cast are pushed from set-piece to set-piece, looking for a way to get back to their ordinary lives. It maintains its momentum by coasting on the charisma of its stars, all of whom are suffering from an out-of-body-but-in-another experience.
Shy Spencer and awkward Martha find themselves trapped in the bodies of sensationally titled video-game avatars Dr. Smolder Bravestone (Johnson) and Ruby Roundhouse (Gillan). On the flip side, jock-head Fridge and Instagram-obsessed Bethany become typically inept sidekicks Moose “Mouse” Finbar (Hart) and curvy Shelly Oberon (Black).
And yes, the Shelly is short for Jack Black’s ‘Sheldon’, whose curvaceous figure has rarely been the subject of captivation.
The bare bones plot is essentially a tent-pole to drape the comedy around and it mostly works. Dwayne Johnson has a knack for physical humour and watching him simply unable to get over his own athletic ability is as entertaining as you would expect. He is appropriately paired with Kevin Hart, who is understandably frustrated with his sudden lack of ability and, indeed, height. Hart has a tendency to rely heavily on screaming and yelling “Aw hell no!” in a high pitched voice for laughs. His performance here is no different and may very well endear, depending on your mood.
And while she isn’t given nearly enough to do (possibly in fear of her stealing the show), Karen Gillan positively shines when she is given the opportunity. A frantic education in flirting leads to some flailing physical comedy that immediately surpasses Kevin Hart’s one-trick pony, and she is also given what is easily the film’s best one-liner.
The standout of the bunch is Jack Black however, delivering what may be his #campest performance yet. He channels uber-millennial Bethany’s mannerisms to great effect, his general obliviousness providing occasional belly laughs. He also has excellent chemistry with the cast, particularly Karen Gillan, thus enabling the group dynamic to work as well as it does.
The main hook for this standard adventure is the use of video-game tropes to hamper the players’ progress. Certain characters’ backstories are explained through “cut-scenes”, viewed via shared hallucination. A lot of fun is poked at characters that are programmed with limited dialogue options. And on top of all this, each character is given a total of three ‘lives’, giving them ample opportunity to ‘die’ in violently inventive, yet entertaining ways as they navigate the jungle.
While this is an intriguing approach to the genre, it is frustrating that the film doesn’t take full advantage of it. A lot of emphasis is placed on the avatar’s strengths and weaknesses at the beginning, as well as the importance of their three ‘lives’. Yet, by the time we’ve passed the halfway point, it’s easy to forget the characters are in a video game at all, with the ‘lives’ system made almost irrelevant. They might as well be in any other film, such as Welcome to the Jungle (2003), which also featured Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson.
This isn’t the only frustrating aspect either. Much of films’ potential goes unfulfilled. On arrival, Gillan asks why she is wearing such impractical attire in a jungle. It’s as if to poke fun at what a voyeuristic male fantasy she has become and makes a valid point about the treatment of women in film/games in general. The film then immediately forgets this jab, panning luxuriously over her whenever the occasion calls for it. And when we try to probe into how millennial Bethany’s mind works, the film puts one limp suggestion forward before s/he replies “Hmm, fair” and then moves on.
Most irritating however, is the way the relationship between Spencer/Bravestone and Fridge/Mouse is handled. A pair of childhood friends, they grow apart because Fridge has become part of the ‘cool’ crowd, with Spencer still vying for his attention. In one semi-sincere scene, attention is brought to how much emotional distance is between them and then, bizarrely, this is never addressed again. There is zero closure on their non-friendship, the final implication being that Fridge was actually a good friend all along and Spencer just didn’t realise it.
It’s hard to be too mad however, considering how low the bar is deliberately set. Welcome to the Jungle consciously aims to be a film you watch while digging into a box of Celebrations over the holidays and it satisfyingly achieves that goal. The cast sincerely seem to be having a great time and it’s very easy to get swept up in that good feeling.
It’s not likely to win any Oscars, but Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is an endearing enough adventure, despite its flaws.
Written by Stephen Hill