A curious thing about Jumanji as a franchise is that it means different things to different people. For myself, I remember when my parents first let me read Chris Van Allsburg’s vaguely scary, yet captivating, children’s book. (Monkeys in the kitchen, man). But to many more, the only warm if faded memory is of the 1995 Jumanji movie starring Robin Williams. For all intents and purposes, Robin Williams is “Jumanji” to a certain generation. This goes so far as to include even members of the cast of Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, Sony’s semi-sequel and total-reworking of the magical game concept.
Yet while the 2017 film pays plenty of homage to the movie that saw Williams run from digital crocodiles (who don’t hold up nearly as well as you recall), that first picture is not really what Welcome to the Jungle is about. Which is one of its greatest assets. Holding as much sly reverence for Tom Hanks’ Big as it does the first Jumanji, Jake Kasdan and Dwayne Johnson’s lighthearted and fairly disarming romp through the jungle (or at least postcard Hawaiian scenery) is the type of breezy, all-ages power fantasy that used to populate family entertainment in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Obviously aspiring to use the Jumanji name to achieve something as broadly appealing as that Penny Marshall/Tom Hanks classic, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle lands closer to The Mask or The Santa Clause. Still, that might just be in the sweet spot for its family entertainment ambitions.
Presented with a maximum embrace of archetypal shorthand, Welcome to the Jungle begins with a pseudo-Breakfast Club being forced together during detention. There’s Spencer, the nerd (Alex Wolff), Fridge, the jock (Ser’Darius Blain), Bethany, the popular girl (Madison Iserman), and Martha, the anti-social wallflower (Morgan Turner). These generic statuses are as deep as the notebook paper they write on, and the prologue they inhabit threatens to err into deadly cliché.
But then the hook happens: they all get trapped inside a 1990s-esque and Nintendo-inspired video game, and the movie blessedly finds new life. Akin to watching the Franchise Viagra™ meme take effect in real-time, suddenly Spencer is played by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson; athletic and arrogant Fridge has been reduced to Kevin Hart’s bite-sized fun; the introverted Martha is in a shamelessly barely there Lara Croft-inspired costume worn by Karen Gillan; and poor, vain Bethany suddenly looks an awful lot like Jack Black.
A movie literally built around its power fantasy of a geek becoming the Rock’s chiseled “Dr. Bravestone,” whose listed in-game abilities include “smoldering intensity”—or the nightmare of a social media princess waking up inside the body of a rotund man—Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle milks its premise for all its worth. There is some lip-service about needing to win the game to get home, and a villain who chases after Bravestone like he’s a Nazi in an Indiana Jones movie, plus Nick Jonas as a kid who’s been trapped inside the body of a Jonas Brother for 20 years, but the story is as skimpy as Martha’s outfit. This is all about the appeal of Johnson playing meek and cowardly, or Black gazing longingly at him while biting his lower lip. And on that level alone, Welcome to the Jungle wins the game it sets out to play.
For all the appeal of the premise, the Jumanji sequel works solely on the charisma of its four performers and their delicious chemistry. As Johnson has become a high-concept made flesh, his open deconstruction of that brand here makes Spencer-as-Bravestone to be a purely comedic presence. Instead of playing an alpha male with cartoonish levels of bravado, this performance sees the Rock in constant giddy awe of his own physique. Otherwise, watching the closest thing we have to an ‘80s action beefcake terrified of snakes or heights is an easy, and winsome, laugh.
Conversely, Hart is cast as the alpha of the group and his attempts to try to play aggressive straight man to Johnson successfully reverse-engineers their Bing Crosby and Bob Hope routine. But the real MVP in the whole thing is Black, who has not been this funny in a mainstream comedy for what must be approaching a decade. Leaning heavily into every Millennial and Generation Z stereotype, his fascination with suddenly having male anatomy, and still brazenly hitting on Nick Jonas while teaching Gillan’s Martha how to flirt, is a perfect series of comedy sketches. Gillan also does very well at showcasing her natural charm and sharp comic timing that Doctor Who fans have long been aware of. And in the process she elevates what she was given, providing an apt awkwardness to a script that seems most interested in rationalizing her costume and making excuses for her to dance in otherwise exciting fight scenes.
All four bounce off each other so effortlessly that the silly premise can overcome the movie’s steep stumbles, particularly in how it egregiously wastes Bobby Cannavale as a villain so thin that it is a wonder he doesn’t blend in with the flora’s other blades of grass. He’s also only slightly more tangible than some of the dubious CGI that the movie uses for its killer wildlife. Also, while the film has some great fun with deconstructing video game clichés (especially of previous decades), its easygoing nature never dares to suggest it is trying to raise the stakes for an epic final level. It is instead content to mosey along on easy mode.
Still, that easiness remains persuasive for the right audience. With knowing winks at the repetitiveness of video games’ Non-Playable Characters, as well as Legend of Zelda staples like the self-actualizing overworld map or the limitless inventory system, the movie fills out its journey with enough humor that it is potentially be the best video game movie to date. But it deserves more than that faint praise.
Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is a slight but amusing bucket of holiday popcorn for families wanting a second (or third) trip to the theaters this season after Star Wars. Stocked to the brim with fan-service for those who grew up wallowing in ‘90s pop culture, including the original Jumanji, it is a game too simple to challenge anyone, including its players. But like these onscreen survivalists actually stopping mid-film to make margaritas while hiding in the wilderness (really), it’s an escape that is all too inviting for at least a few hours.
This review originally ran on Dec. 9, 2017.