It’s been more than 20 years since a group of kids unleashed the characters and creatures from an adventure board game called Jumanji onto an unsuspecting world. With this loosely connected sequel, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, the new players are pulled into the virtual world of the game—a video game, since apparently the game can detect that the world has moved beyond board games. The result features humor and action that, although I think there’s enough here to keep older viewers amused, is very much driven toward younger audiences (despite the PG-13 rating).
Director Jake Kasdan has a solid history of helming all types of comedies, from Walk Hard and Bad Teacher and Sex Tape to multiple episodes of “Freaks & Geeks” and “New Girl.” But he has never really tackled something as effects-heavy as Jumanji, a video game world in which you are as likely to see all manner of insane weaponry as you are to see every species of oversized animals, not to mention the “human” villain Van Pelt (Bobby Cannavale).
The film opens when four high school students serving detention are made to clean out a storage room that is soon being turned into a computer lab. Alex Wolff plays Spencer, the resident game expert, who’s a bit nerdy and nervous around the ladies. Ladies including Martha (Morgan Turner), who lives her life buried in books. They are joined by the far more popular and social Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain), a football player, and Bethany (Madison Iseman), who is barely capable of looking away from her phone. The four find the Jumanji game, figure out how it works, select characters they want to be, and unexpectedly get sucked into the game.
To be clear, Jumanji isn’t just the game; it’s the jungle location of all the action. And after being greeted by the resident exposition-heavy Nigel (Rhys Darby), the four realize they have entirely new bodies, abilities and weaknesses. Spencer has become the muscle-bound hero (played now by Dwayne Johnson); Bethany is now the ass-kicking action star (Karen Gillan from Guardians of the Galaxy) in short shorts and with her midriff showing; the usually towering Fridge is now the diminutive weapons valet (Kevin Hart); and Bethany is a heavy-set, middle-aged scientist (Jack Black). Nothing about their personalities has changed, so Spencer is still the wildly insecure teenage kid, trapped in the body of The Rock, offering Johnson and the others some unique and often funny acting opportunities.
Although there certainly could have been far more opportunities to play with the video game motif, the most important element of the story is that each player has only three lives—the presumption being that if you die in the game, you don’t get to go back to the real world. There are plenty of explosions and other high-action moments, but a great number of the special effects have an artificiality to them that a part of me wants to believe was done on purpose.
On the performance side of things, Johnson makes the most of contrasting his look with his stunted personality; Gillan never stops questioning the practicality of being half dressed in a jungle environment; Black is particularly funny playing the self-absorbed teenage girl more obsessed with finding her phone than being useful; and Hart pretty much does what you’d expect him to do—yelling, running, wondering where the top half of his body went.
There’s a curious but ultimately satisfying appearance by Nick Jonas as Alex, a player in the game who has been trapped there for…we’ll say, longer than the others. He’s been living on his last life for as long as he can remember, and there’s a metaphor about living in fear that makes a difference in how our heroes figure out how to escape Jumanji. It turns out we’re all living a life that we only get to live once. Who knew?
Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is a harmless, well-meaning, spirited, and perhaps overly polished adventure tale that I can almost guarantee you kids of a certain age will really take to, unless they’re addicted to playing real video games and are bored by the film’s aesthetic. And if your kid is like that, you have bigger problems than whether they’ll like this movie.