'Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle'
Take me back to the beginning of 2017 and ask me which campy and unnecessary Dwayne Johnson movie would be better, ‘Jumanji 2’ or ‘Baywatch’. After hanging my head in shame, I would have grudgingly guessed ‘Baywatch’. I would have been wrong. Did the world need a sequel to ‘Jumanji’? Absolutely not. However, the one we got is far better than it has any right to be. It ain’t perfect, but neither was ‘Jumanji’.
For those few ’90s kids who have forgotten, ‘Jumanji’ was about a supernatural board game that either sucks players into the jungle or sucks the jungle into the real world. These days, board games aren’t exactly the bee’s knees with the kiddies anymore, so this time ‘Jumanji’ is transformed into a videogame. The four unfortunate teens who get sucked into the involuntary adventure fit a collection of ‘Breakfast Club’ high school stereotypes. They find the game while suffering through detention, and their in-game avatars are so different from their actual personalities that it’s bananas. In the real world, Spencer (Alex Wolff) is a nerdy gaming addict and social outcast, so in ‘Jumanji’ he’s obviously Dwayne “Can’t Get Away from That Wrestling Name” Johnson. Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain) is an alpha male football bro, so he’s transformed into a tiny/whiny zoology expert played by Kevin Hart. Bethany (Madison Iseman) is a self-absorbed and phone-obsessed high school princess, so she turns into Jack Black for chuckles. Finally, Martha is the socially awkward and brilliant young woman turned into a sexpot badass played by Karen Gillan. Together they must join forces to beat ‘Jumanji’, and along the way they just might learn important lessons about friendship, teamwork, and who they really are. (Wow! In a teen movie?! Can you believe it?!)
It goes without saying that ‘Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle’ isn’t the most original or unpredictable movie in the world. It’s a gratuitous sequel, videogame goof, action/adventure, inspirational teen slapstick comedy. In other words, it’s a combination of many of the worst and most redundant Hollywood genres. And yet, somewhere in between all the obvious lesson learning, over-the-top face punching, and bathroom humor, something kind of clever emerges. An army of screenwriters with backgrounds in everything from ‘Community’ to ‘Con Air’ and ‘Alias’ put this thing together. It’s a very self-aware bit of pulpy entertainment, the sort that gets away with being stupid because everyone involved clearly knows exactly how stupid it is. Director Jake Kasden (‘Walk Hard’, ‘Orange County’) is talented enough to handle all the action/adventure material with style and excitement, but his background is in character comedy. Thanks to that, he’s able to milk a surprising amount of laughs out a movie that easily could have been a redundant waste of space.
It all hangs on the shoulders of The Rock, a man who looks like one of the action figure movie heroes of the ’80s and ’90s, but can actually act and has a self-aware wit. He alternates from playing a smoldering action hero (as only he can) with playing the insecure teenager inside with surprising fluidity. It’s a joy to watch the guy cut loose with his very specific set of skills, and this script has been perfectly tailored to him. (Yes, the script for ‘Jumanji 2’. Trust me, I’m as surprised as you.) Equally hilarious is Jack Black, who commits to playing a teen girl cartoon within his particular pudgy body so fully that you just have to laugh. By putting a teen girl in a Jack Black, the movie actually stumbles onto a few original dick jokes, which shouldn’t be possible.
Kevin Hart does his usual routine and once again proves to be a strong screen presence when given a script that isn’t garbage. Karen Gillan ably holds her own with the gang of established stars. She has to play an ironic videogame heroine/sex object as well as a teen girl so awkward she can barely control her own body. Her performance is alternately sweet, slapstick, and badass. She hits all the notes and really should be a star by now. Sadly, a ‘Jumanji’ sequel competing for attention against a new ‘Star Wars’ movie likely isn’t the project that’ll finally shoot her to the next level. But just watch the scene where she painfully attempts to seduce some bad guys and then successfully dance-fights all up their backsides. Not everyone could do that.
As for the regular teens? They’re all well cast, but have little to do. The movie wisely spends as much time within the videogame/action movie world as long as possible. That’s where the good stuff happens, with plenty of witty comments on clichés, some delightful swashbuckling, and mild parodies on videogame conventions. The sentimental “learn to be yourself” heart of the movie even kind of works when executed through the bizarre prism of watching The Rock and Jack Black learn teen lessons in a jungle adventure setting. Anytime Kasden departs the fantasy to hammer those points home, the flick is dragged down into a maudlin mess.
Fortunately, that’s all minimal. Everyone involved knew they were making B-movie entertainment with a wink and treated everything else as window dressing. By the time the big silly movie sputters to a stop, it’s hard to pretend you didn’t enjoy yourself along the way. Not impossible, but at least hard. Faint praise? Well yeah, but then again the fact that ‘Jumanji 2’ deserves even faint praise is kind of a miracle. Nostalgia aside, this sequel is at least an equal to the original. That’s all you can really ask for from this sort of thing, even though no one actually asked for this decades-late sequel in the first place.