Comedy Gold Prevents 'Jumanji' Sequel From Becoming A Wasteland
By Andrea Thompson
Sequels to beloved properties made all the more dear to our hearts by nostalgia always make any additions feel unnecessary, and “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” makes itself even more so by only focusing on the 1995 film's potential for comedy, but none of its cleverness, pathos, or very earned emotional connections.
The movie begins with another unlucky teenager named Alex coming across the game in the late 90s, but decides he prefers his video games instead. So the game adapts by transforming into a cartridge, which Alex decides to play, thus sucking him into Jumanji. Flash forward a few decades and the movie's rather misguided attempt to be a kind of actiony, modern Breakfast Club begins. Four very different kids find themselves in detention and decide to pass the time by playing the old video game they discover in the basement. Soon, they too are also in the game as the avatars they chose.
This is where “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” not only shines, it elevates itself through sheer comedic force of will. The awkward nerd becomes Dwayne Johnson, the football star becomes Kevin Hart, the wallflower becomes Karen Gillan, and the social media obsessed popular girl becomes Jack Black. Watching these four play off of each other and make such a throwaway outing into something kind of special is the real treasure “Jumanji” brings us.
It's a good thing, because the rest of the movie is just rather baffling. Board games may not be overwhelmingly popular, but they've lasted, far longer than the 90s-era video games that “Jumanji” is attempting to capitalize on, which is all the more baffling in the midst of our current mania for 80s pop culture. The movie does try to have some fun with retro technology, such as side characters repeating the same information over and over, but since the movie puts about as much effort into this as it does the rest of its ideas, it wears thin quickly.
That effort, or rather the lack of it, is really what prevents “Jumanji” from soaring to the heights of its predecessor. The kids predictably bond and learn the usual life lessons, but they're rarely explored or allowed to break free from their assigned roles. The movie really belongs to Dwayne Johnson's nerd, who gets the most exploration and screen time as he learns to come into his own and even get the girl. This would be more annoying if it weren't for the unstoppable power of Johnson's charisma and comic chops, which means he's able to once again pull off the whole nerdy hero thing. Sure, we've seen it before, but the thing about Dwayne Johnson is that he's able to make every old thing he's already done feel...not exactly new, but still irresistibly watchable. But it's Jack Black who threatens to steal the show, as he's clearly having a blast playing a teenage girl, Gillan makes the most of a character whose main job seems to be learning how to be sexy rather than taking a similar action hero journey as Johnson. To the movie's credit, it does not make her in need of rescue. Hart is mostly just doing his usual thing, but he's also reliably entertaining, especially with such great talent to play off of.
However, there's precious few callbacks to the original, and the one to the late great Robin Williams feels more like an obligation rather than an homage. Same goes for the villainous Van Pelt. The original (Jonathan Hyde) was symbolic of a whole lot of issues for Williams, and this time he's played by Bobby Cannavale in a very unsettling performance. That said, he's not allowed to be truly frightening because he's merely tied into the history of the Dwayne Johnson avatar, thus depriving him of any emotional impact. Nor is he given a great deal of screen time, or the opportunity to truly take advantage of his powers, which include controlling every animal in Jumanji. Even worse, he feels unnecessary in a jungle setting. Why is a human adversary even needed in such a dangerous environment?
Yes, “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” takes the lazy way out, but the ride's more enjoyable than most, with some genuine laughs along the way. Most of the action sequences leave a bit to be desired, but when the movie does work, it does in such a riotously enjoyable way you'll be very willing to shut your brain off.