If you grew up in the 90s, chances are you watched Jumanji more than a few dozen times. In retrospect, the film doesn’t exactly stand out as a masterpiece. The CGI hasn’t aged incredibly well and it never quite reaches the heights of Indiana Jones. Fun Fact: Director Joe Johnston actually won an Oscar for his visual effects work on Raiders of the Lost Ark. For what Jumanji was, however, it did deliver an inventive sense of adventure and the late Robin Williams certainly brought plenty of energy to the table. It might not be great, but there’s definitely a reason why it kept kids coming back.
Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is a sequel that shouldn’t work. It’s about twenty years too late, the original film’s star is no longer with us, and nobody really asked for this story to continue. Strangely enough, though, director Jake Kasdan has made a successor that’s much more entertaining than it has any right to be. While it would’ve been easy for this follow-up to bank on nostalgia alone, the filmmakers actually try to do their own thing with the Jumanji brand name. It still maintains the good, old-fashioned fun one would expect, but also offers some clever modern updates and ideas that work surprisingly well.
The opening scenes almost play out like something out of The Breakfast Club as four high school students land in detention. There’s Alex Wolff as the scrawny gamer Spencer, Ser’Darius Blain as macho jock Fridge, Madison Iseman as beautiful mean girl Bethany, and Morgan Turner as the social outcast Martha. While cleaning out a storage closet, the gang comes across Jumanji, which has evolved from a board game to a video game. How you may ask? Magic, nuff said! When they hook the game up, the four are sucked into the virtual world and assume different appearances. Spencer is now Dwayne Johnson, Fringe is now Kevin Hart, Bethany is now Jack Black, and Martha is now Karen Gillan.
The contrast between how the characters behave in the real world and how they look in the game world makes leeway for plenty of great comedy. Suddenly, nerdy Spencer is an action hero while Bethany is literally a woman trapped inside a man’s body. The actors all have a ball in these roles and the rapport they share never misses a beat. There’s also a good deal of jokes that poke fun at tropes we see in video games, but the film fortunately feels more like Wreck-It Ralph than Pixels. The story doesn’t come off as a rehash either since it actually takes place in the jungle, unlike the original where most of the action was set in our world.
Despite all the changes, Welcome to the Jungle manages to capture the spirit of its predecessor nonetheless. The tone isn’t as dark and there’s really no sense of peril, even though the characters can technically die in this game. Of course that’s not to say the film takes no chances. For example, we do get some welcome adult humor as Bethany explores her new um… equipment. The plot is basically an excuse to set up amusing action sequences and comedy routines, supplying just what the target demographic will be looking for. As was the case with the original, this Jumanji film isn’t a game-changer by any means, but there isn’t an eight-year-old out there who won’t want to rewatch it again.