Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle Review
After the marketing campaign for Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle swung into gear last year, you’d be hard pressed to find anybody with high hopes for it, due to a cringe-inducing trailer that prompted as many groans from cinema audiences as laughs. When the film did premiere to surprisingly positive reviews across the board, it didn’t take a cynical mind to wonder if this was largely due to low expectations - and then, it became an enduring box office smash that gave The Last Jedi a run for its money, netting just under a billion dollars worldwide and being crowned a new family favourite by audiences.
So, was it just low expectations that led to this belated Jumanji sequel becoming so widely beloved? As the film arrives on DVD/Blu-Ray, with the hype firmly in the rear view mirror, the answer is a resounding no. This is a charming family adventure, with four central performances with far more depth than it would initially appear. It’s not entirely free of flaws, nor is it anything close to an example of a “perfect” film. But it does have plenty of laughs and thrills to entertain audiences young and old, and improves upon its Robin Williams-starring predecessor (and 2005’s forgotten space sequel, Zathura) in every conceivable way.
This time around, four high school students have been thrown into detention for various reasons; Spencer for writing an essay on behalf of his former friend Fridge, Bethany for FaceTiming during class, and Martha, who rants at the gym teacher about how pointless the class is. At detention together, they find an old games console and video game, which quickly sucks them into the world of Jumanji and highlights their real world insecurities. The nerdy, awkward Spencer is now an Indiana Jones-style hero archaeologist (played by Dwayne Johnson), the self-centred Bethany is now a middle aged historian (Jack Black), the imposing jock is now a mere sidekick (Kevin Hart), and the shy, cynical Martha is now a badass in the mould of Lara Croft (Karen Gillan). As well as progressing through the game to escape back to the real world, the group also need to learn how to reconcile their own differences that have seen them previously at each other’s throats.
Of these central performances, it's Jack Black who impresses the most. What may initially seem like a one note impersonation of an insufferably “basic” teenage girl eventually proves to be one of the more challenging roles he’s been afforded in years; as the film progresses, the flamboyance is played less for laughs, and actually begins to offer depth to a character obsessed with how people perceive her looks in the real world. The fact Jack Black is effectively portraying a teenage girl also allows for some of the riskier gags in a family movie in recent memory, managing to breathe new life into the joyously lowbrow “erection gag” in the process.
If nothing else, director Jake Kasdan does prove that the best video game movies are the ones that aren’t based on any pre-existing source material from that medium. Naturally, using a more expansive medium than a board game ensures there is far more imagination at play here; the screenplay focusses on various aspects of gaming, for example the “NPC” (or non-player character), and shows how inconvenient the different functions of video games are when trying to make the narrative make the necessary progress needed.
However, the surprising ingenuity of details like this is undermined somewhat by the inconsistent world-building - something that doesn’t become apparent until the convoluted third act - which even four credited screenwriters have struggled to whip into shape. The aforementioned non-player characters can only repeat a few lines of dialogue and cannot do anything more than the function of the game requires them to. Yet the in-game villain, an utterly thankless role for Bobby Cannavale, is an NPC who we see chatting with other NPCs and preparing to attack the main characters outside of what the central characters witness in the game. The entire third act wrestles with the established conventions of the video game world, and the necessary narrative functions of a film - and proves once again that the two mediums aren’t compatible as modes of storytelling.
: Only a plethora of short featurettes (including a music video) and gag reels on the DVD, that don’t enhance the film’s overall effect.