The word classic in cinema world can be thrown around too loosely at times. For instance, 1995’s Jumanji with Robin Williams, Kirsten Dunst, and lots of CG animals is not one. It is a mostly entertaining experience about that board game that comes to life and it made a lot of money. So 22 years later, Sony has rebooted the franchise into the video game era. Welcome to the Jungle is no classic either, but it’s often lots of fun with great casting… and of course a horde of CG animals. Truthfully, it’s a lot better than it should be.
A prologue picks up shortly after its predecessor’s events with teenager Alex finding that cursed Jumanji board game. Sort of. It’s in the original casing of the game, but has been downsized to a video game cartridge. Alex tries to play but gets sucked in and disappears for two decades.
Flash forward to 2016 with four teens serving detention together. They are the archetypes you’re accustomed to: nerd Spencer (Alex Woolf), jock Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain), shy girl Martha (Morgan Turner), and bombshell Bethany (Madison Iseman). While doing their punishment in the high school basement, they happen upon the game and decide to select which characters to play. Soon enough, they find themselves transported to the far away title world. And they’re the people they chose to be with more famous faces and odd superpowers and weaknesses. Scaredy cat Spencer is now the heroic Dr. Smolder Bravestone, represented by the giant biceps of Dwayne Johnson. Athletic Fridge is now the diminutive zoologist Mouse, sidekick to Dr. Bravestone whose weaknesses include cake. Martha is Ruby Roundhouse, a foxy martial arts expert with an inexplicable wardrobe considering her jungle surroundings. Most humorously, Bethany has traded in her bod for Jack Black’s cartographer Dr. Shelly. All the adult actors have a ball playing their counterparts, but Black shines brightest channeling his social media obsessed teen girl.
The majority of inhabitants in Jumanji world are only programmed to speak in video game dialogue, meaning their vocabulary is quite limited. This is a funny touch in a screenplay filled with them. There’s some potential jungle love between Bravestone and Ruby (and therefore Spencer and Martha), as well as Bethany’s crush with Alex once he’s found and portrayed by Nick Jonas. Seeing Jack Black’s heart a flutter with a Jonas brother is a highlight. There’s also a first kiss between two characters that produced a knowing belly laugh. Johnson and Hart (who first teamed up in Central Intelligence) smartly play to their onscreen strengths with Gillan bringing the term dance fighting to our consciousness.
Welcome to the Jungle is in many ways an improvement on the 1995 pic. Yes, the special effects have elevated tremendously in two decades plus, but it’s more than that. The joyous and adventurous and often sweet tone here just feels right with a game cast along for the ride.
Not everything works. An interesting villain would have been nice. Bobby Cannavale’s conniving explorer isn’t it. He’s forgettable even when he’s speaking. That quibble aside, part 2 of the Jumanji saga should be remembered fondly two decades from now and probably deserves it even more.
*** (out of four)