Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (2017)
★★★ / ★★★★
Anyone who has played role-playing video games from the ‘90s is likely to be entertained by “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle,” a clever, self-aware adventure-comedy propelled by charismatic and energetic performances. Credit to the team of screenwriters for making the smart decision to depart from the beloved 1995 classic in nearly every way, from the setting of the story to the overall tone, mood, and characterization. With a twenty-year gap between the original and its sequel, it is critical for the latter to come across contemporary while remaining tethered to the spirit of its predecessor. It is a welcome evolution.
Casting directors Nicole Abellera and Jeanne McCarthy deserve a pat on the back for selecting four performers (Dwayne Johnson, Jack Black, Kevin Hart, Karen Gillan) who are more than up to the task in embodying in-game characters, or avatars, playing out-of-game characters (Alex Wolff, Madison Iseman, Ser’Darius Blain, Morgan Turner) who just so happen to be high school students, teenage baggage and all, on top of being complete opposites of how they look like. It is a winsome twist in body-switching teen archetypes.
For example, Black must play a female teen, the popular princess type who thinks the world revolves around her and her selfies. But Black’s character, the avatar, is obviously male, and one who has more on his mind than taking pretty “no filter” pictures for likes on social media. Rarely does a movie make me want to watch the outtakes because the actors seem willing to do anything for a laugh. Perhaps their near-hits or misses are pretty funny, too. Each finds a way to have fun in his or her respective role without relying on being campy or loud all the time. I enjoyed moments when the film manages to sneak up on the viewer and makes us realize how much we care that the four teens in adult bodies make it out of the game with the lessons they learned, about themselves and one another, intact.
The special and visual effects are not particularly impressive. For instance, by comparison, I find the wildlife stampede in the original “Jumanji” picture to be more visceral, exciting even though the chaos is unfolding in a suburban area. In fact, here, some set pieces look rather fake, clearly shot in a studio. Movies shot in actual jungles, particularly war films set in Vietnam and other countries by the Pacific, tend to capture the looks of vegetation and sounds in a matter-of-fact, occasionally haunting way. Here, at times plants look as though they have been purchased at a dollar store, clearly dummies, plastic.
Still, the energy of the film is so infectious, I believe most viewers will overlook such details. A shortcoming not easily ignored, however, is a lack of a great villain with strong presence. Van Pelt (Bobby Cannavale) is a recognizable name in the “Jumanji” universe, but the writers neglect to create an interesting character who has more to him than looking mean with bugs crawling all over his face. Had there been something else to the antagonist, a self-awareness perhaps, even a sense of humor, Van Pelt might have been a formidable opponent.
Because Jake Kasdan’s “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” succeeds in modernizing a brand, it is possible that a new franchise is born. Surely box office numbers will tell, but the real question is, if it does continue, would the screenwriters be able to tap into a wellspring of new ideas and put them together in such a way that is focused and relevant? Time will tell. But hopefully not another two decades will pass.