The premise of Jumanji, a holiday hit 22 Christmases ago, was that a board game brought jungle animals into the real world to chase Robin Williams around the house. Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, a surprisingly peppy quasi-sequel, updates and reverses it. Now it’s a video game that magically sucks its players into its perilous world, represented by the avatars they chose at the start of the game. Those avatars might be very different from their real-world selves. You see the potential for comedy here.
So did director Jake Kasden (Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story) and the two pairs of writers — Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers (Spider-Man: Homecoming, TV’s Community), Scott Rosenberg and Jeff Pinkner (TV’s Zoo) — responsible for it. Welcome to the Jungle emphasizes its humor, with a few scenes that feel like sketches (not in a bad way) and only a casual interest in jungle adventure (though that’s handled well enough) as it conveys its ironic message about only having one life and making the most of it.
We briefly meet four disparate high school students: Spencer (Alex Wolff), a gangly, uncertain nerd; Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain), the hulking jock who was Spencer’s friend in childhood but shuns him now; Martha (Morgan Turner), a sullen alterna-girl; and Bethany (Madison Iseman), a vain, entitled brat who lives on Instagram. While serving detention together and cleaning out an old storage room, they find a gaming console with the Jumanji cartridge and four controllers (the only part of the movie I find implausible), then find themselves inside the game.
The game world looks to us like the real world, not a digital one, and our four heroes are the characters they randomly chose at the start: Spencer is Dwayne Johnson, now playing a fearful boy who’s allergic to everything; Fridge is Kevin Hart, an alpha male in the body of a goofy sidekick; Martha is a badass fighter played by Karen Gillan; and Bethany is Jack Black. They have the knowledge and skills of their avatars (e.g., one’s a zoologist) mixed with their own personalities, which are now comically incongruous with their physical appearances. To get out of the game, they must save the jungle world of Jumanji from the spell it’s under by finding the sacred blah blah and returning it to the yada yada.
The character arcs are simple but effective, and the hokey teen emotions don’t intrude too much. Spencer gains self-confidence; Fridge learns to be a team player; Martha is self-actualized by combining her intelligence with her physical strength; Bethany stops being such a rancid mean girl. The dialogue and situations written for them are funny, making good use of their differing personalities, but the film’s success hinges on the casting. All four must play against type, and all four do it authentically, with sincerity over jokiness. Jack Black’s impersonation of a self-absorbed teenage girl is the most difficult (it would be easy to fall into mockery, or to come across as an effeminate gay man), but it turns out to be the funniest because Black convinces us there’s a real girl in there. The same goes for Dwayne Johnson fretting about seat belts and Claritin, Kevin Hart talking like a tough guy, and Karen Gillan (recently seen as blue-skinned Nebula in the “Guardians of the Galaxy” films) worrying she’s not brave enough. The scene where Bethany urinates with a penis for the first time will live in Jack Black’s highlight reel forever.
(Also notable: Hart and Black usually play similar types in movies — the manic, goofy sidekick — but Jumanji puts them both to good use without canceling each other out.)
The movie has some fun with the logic of video games in that each player has multiple but finite lives (so they can die hilariously), but it leaves a lot of fertile territory unexplored. I get the sense that the writers, like myself, haven’t played video games much in the last 25 years and really only needed the gimmick of the extra lives. But that leaves more for the sequels to play with, and a (mostly) family-friendly adventure comedy like this, with a positive vibe and slightly twisted sense of humor, is bound to spawn sequels. I’d like the next one to take on a Frogger format, please, thank you.
Eric D. Snider lives in the jungles of Portland.