Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle
Hollywood delivers another long delayed sequel in the form of Jake Kasdan’s Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle.
The original Jumanji is a serviceable if unremarkable adventure romp elevated by the presence of the late great Robin Williams. It wasn’t something that particularly needed a sequel nor was anyone really crying out for one. There was an animated series that served as something of a sequel but beyond that the film was left as a one shot deal forming part of Robin Williams’ body of work.
This sequel takes a different approach. The first film was about a small group playing a board game that spilled out into the real world where this film takes the characters into the world of the game and updates it somewhat by making it a video game cartridge rather than a board game.
Using a video game cartridge does give the experience a retro feel in the same way that using a board game in the first film did. People are nostalgic for old school NES style 8 bit games just as they might have been for board games in 1995 so it works as a reference to “the good old days” as well as reverence for the original film.
Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is bookended by the story of 4 high school age kids. Spencer (Alex Wolff) lacks self-confidence and is socially awkward, Bethany (Madison Iseman) is a social media obsessed popular girl, Martha (Morgan Turner) is very much the opposite of Bethany and Anthony “Fridge” Johnson (Ser’Darius Blain) is the high school quarterback uninterested in using his brain.
As characters go they are all profoundly shallow though easy to identify by the one thing that defines them. The character flaw that needs to be overcome is clearly spelled out and their character arcs are very predictable from there. It isn’t bad but also not especially interesting. In fairness it’s enough for a film like this as it gives the characters an easily defined goal to reach.
Time is spent in the early part of the film establishing the younger character and getting them to the point that they enter the world of Jumanji. Again, it’s not bad but these scenes do drag somewhat especially since we won’t actually be spending the bulk of the film with these actors. I understand the intention to make them memorable enough so that the audience will keep them in mind during the adventure portion of the narrative but the necessary information could have been delivered much more neatly.
The bulk of the film is spent in the world of Jumanji after they are pulled into the video game and embody their selected characters. Spencer becomes Dr. Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson); a heroic strongman, Bethany becomes Professor Shelly Oberon (Jack Black); an overweight middle aged cartographer, Martha become Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan); a kickass female adventurer in an uncomfortably skimpy outfit and Fridge becomes Moose Finbar (Kevin Hart), a zoologist and cart horse for Bravestone’s weapons.
For the most part the actors are playing against type. Dwayne Johnson is essentially playing someone constantly surprised that he’s Dwayne Johnson, Karen Gillan is playing someone insecure and terrified and Jack Black plays a spoiled teenage girl. The exception is Kevin hart who basically plays the role he always plays except he’s less than comfortable with who he is compared to what he was before.
The actors do a good job for the most part and have a solid dynamic together. Dwayne Johnson once again shows his ability as a leading man with excellent comic timing, Karen Gillan is believable in her role and Kevin Hart is fine if his shtick doesn’t annoy you. The real standout is Jack Black who plays the part of a shallow teenage girl perfectly. It’s so at odds with what you’d expect that it just works and Black was responsible for the biggest laughs in the film.
Each character arc as mentioned above is obviously designed around overcoming their established flaws and the video game characters they embody help them address that in some way. It’s not groundbreaking by any means but definitely serviceable and these arcs are resolved by the end of the film.
Unfortunately the film falls apart in how it executes its premise. The whole point is to reference video games from using non player characters, levels of increasing difficulty and cut scenes to name a few but the film stops in its tracks far too often to lean into the fun adventure romp that it almost becomes. The biggest problem is the pacing; there are too many scenes where the characters stop and discuss their current situation rather than taking any action. It brings the film to a halt in favour of largely uninteresting dialogue exchanges. Shedding some of the running time may have helped fix this problem to some degree.
Another issue is the villain played by Bobby Cannavale. A film like this was never going to have one of cinema’s greatest antagonists but he feels very much like an afterthought here. He isn’t named as far as I can remember and fails to drum up any kind of menace despite an engaging enough performance from Cannavale. Some greater interaction between the villain and the characters might at least have established the threat level to a greater degree than we though. I understand that the aim is for Jumanji itself to be the antagonist but this could have been accomplished without a central villain.
The action sequences are fine but largely fail to be memorable outside of a small number of examples involving making use of the video game mechanics such as extra lives and enhanced skills. The best sequences in the film are the more tense ones such as an encounter with a snake so there is some variety to the content.
An unremarkable experience that ruins a lot of its potential thanks to poor pacing, a bloated running time and long stretches of time wasted with uninteresting dialogue. An uninspiring and unnecessary villain also drags thing down as he has no real place being there but some creativity in the action sequences do help the film stand out. The characters are broadly drawn stereotypes both in and out of the game but their singular traits are memorable and provide clear character arcs that are resolved by the end of the film. Each member of the cast works well in their role largely playing against type with particular praise to be given to Jack Black.
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