Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is a different, but in many ways better film than its forebear.
Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is a sequel to a 22-year-old film, which itself was based off a now-36-year-old children’s book, so the fact that its biggest strength is the fresh originality of its delivery is truly an achievement. Though it fails to match the charm of the original film or the visual impact of its predecessor and the book that inspired it, Welcome to the Jungle is still worth the price of admission. The lack of charm is due in no small part to the absence of the late Robin Williams, while the visuals are unfortunately more in line with the recent tropical comedy bomb Snatched than with its impactful precursors.
Rather than opting for a straight sequel, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle offers a return to the fantasy jungle board game world where Williams’ Alan Parrish, the hero of the first film, was lost for years. The first Jumanji was by no means a great film, but one of the things that it got right was that its action and physical comedy were often the result of applying board game rules to the real world. Director Jake Kasdan (Bad Teacher, Sex Tape) and writers Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers, Scott Rosenberg and Jeff Pinkner wisely take the same strategy and amplify it. Where the original Jumanji found the game slowly leaking into our world, Welcome to the Jungle finds its protagonists sucked into a video game version of the original’s board game, where they are forced to inhabit game-trope avatars. It might seem gimmicky, but it works incredibly well, playing out like an often-hysterical mixture of Freaky Friday and Wreck-It Ralph.
The real-world protagonists are nerdy Spencer (Alex Wolff), pretty and vapid Bethany (Madison Iseman), jock Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain) and awkward Martha (Morgan Turner). Upon entry to Jumanji, Spencer is transformed into the dashing Dr. Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson), Bethany into the chubby, academic Professor Sheldon “Shelly” Oberon (Jack Black), Fridge into height-challenged zoologist Franklin “Moose” Finbar (Kevin Hart) and Martha into the beautiful and badass Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan in Lara Croft mode). This leads to a lot of fun, as The Rock is tasked with playing a nerd trapped in The Rock’s body and so on. The best jokes come from Bethany’s transformation in Jack Black’s Shelly. Though the writers rely a bit too much on millennial gags, Black absolutely nails the character of Bethany, and it isn’t a stretch to believe that we’re actually watching a teenage girl trapped inside his body.
Despite the fresh set-up, excellent characters and winning performances, the rest of Welcome to the Jungle isn’t as compelling. Bobby Cannavale’s villain Van Pelt is even more one-note than Jonathan Hyde’s villain from the original Jumanji, while the film also tries to recreate Robin Williams’ character with one played by Nick Jonas, who, while suitably dashing, cannot come close to matching the legend’s combination of charisma and vulnerability. Finally, Kasdan and the many writers would have done well to allow Welcome to the Jungle to be pure comedic romp, but instead it feels as if they panicked and added long, boring stretches of pointless character development and relationship building.
Though the original Jumanji is hardly a classic piece of filmmaking, it’s remembered fondly as a comedic showcase for Robin Williams and because of its then-advanced special effects. Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is a different, but in many ways better film than its forebear. While it lacks the visual impact of the original Jumanji, Welcome to the Jungle ups the action and comedy. And if the filmmakers had been confident enough to complete give over to these strengths, it could have been even better.