Movie Review: Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle

The popular film has been updated with a few new twists and an able cast

With Dwayne Johnson, Jack Black, Kevin Hart, Karen Gillan, Nick Jonas, Bobby Cannavale

The endless array of remakes continues with Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, based on the 1995 film.

It managed to update the material enough so that the remake isn’t pointless. The big change this time is that a video game is substituted for the board game in the original.

The beginning of the film is reminiscent of the classic 1985 teen film, The Breakfast Club, with high school kids from different backgrounds sent into detention for various infractions of school rules. While cleaning out the basement as punishment they find an old video game console that has a Jumanji game cartridge stored in it.

They start the game, and the four diverse high-school age players get sucked into the game console and emerge in the game world as their avatars or idealized computer counterparts. Each of the avatars has some special skills.

There is a bit of humor in what happens early on, and this can also be seen in the advertisements.

A nerdy teen named Spencer is transformed into daring archaeologist Dr. Smolder Bravestone (played by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson). A self-involved woman from the glamour clique named Bethany becomes Professor Sheldon Oberon (Jack Black), a map expert. A muscular football player named Fridge becomes Moose Finbar (Kevin Hart), a diminutive zoologist who is carrying Bravestone’s weapons for him. A shy woman named Martha becomes Rudy Roundhouse (Karen Gillan), a pretty but dangerous fighter in a very skimpy Tomb Raider-style outfit.

The film sporadically tries to create the feel of a video game, but not in a consistent way and that is a drawback.

The start, though, is promising with computerized characters popping up to give some crucial information, and push the action forward. A brief expository video clip is seen, as was common in games from the late 1980s and early 1990s. The game’s plot, something about a jewel and a shrine, is also fairly typical. Some clues are in verse.

The characters are a mix of their avatars’ traits, which they audience sees listed in an early scene and the players’ own personalities. The script gets a bit preachy about overcoming phobias and pushing oneself to do difficult things. The film can’t decide if it is an inspirational after-school TV special or an action-adventure film in the Raiders of the Lost Ark mold.

But the cast of characters in-game world do their best with the concept. Professor Sheldon Oberon, the conceited teen woman who is now a fat middle-aged man, has the most adjusting to do. Jack Black tries to bring some femininity to his portrayal, while still respecting both male and female aspects of his character. There are enough redeeming moments to overshadow the times it doesn’t work. The gender switch is belabored a bit too often for cheap laughs, though.

A bit more difficult is Moose Finbar. Video games from the 1990s, due to limitations of the time, often relied on stock stereotypes. Characters could only be crudely drawn and the routine nature of the puzzle-solving games didn’t allow for much character depth. Moose is a black character whose main task is to carry a giant backpack, though he does spontaneously spurt out some scientific background when the game needs it. Kevin Hart at least gets the chance to point out the ridiculousness of his role, which helps.

Karen Gillan as the sexy fighter Ruby Roundhouse also addresses the stereotypes she has been forced into. The filmmakers though, still use her for eye candy, trying to have it both ways.

The saving grace of the film is Dwayne Johnson, a former pro wrestler who surprisingly has become a top action and comedy star. Among all the cast, he captures the cartoonishness of the game and also evokes the nerdy personality of the teen from the real world that he represents.

If anything, the CGI effects in the film are too good. Early video games had limited video effects that were a bit blocky and cartoonish. The game characters moved a bit awkwardly, often repeating the same motions. Everything is too smooth and realistic to fully evoke the feel of a 1990s game.

There is also too much time between major events in the game. A lot of time is spent walking around and talking, looking for the next obstacle. This provides room for character development, but a few bits could have been sped up a bit with no significant loss to the story.

Some moments do work spectacularly, such as when a character’s hidden power kicks in, surprising the person with what they can do.

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle overall delivers some thrilling action scenes with mostly interesting characters and succeeds in bringing something new to the concept of the original film. It could have used more of the motifs of video games to create a more impressive alternative world.

It is clearly meant as a holiday release with a little something for everyone. It succeeds in that, but with a bit of push, it could have gone to the next game level.

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