Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (2017)
Written by Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers, Scott Rosenberg, and Jeff Pinkner
Directed by Jake Kasdan
The children’s literature of Chris Van Allsburg is mysterious. If you’ve ever read The Stranger, his picture book about a mysterious vagrant whose arrival at a farmhouse signals a pause in the seasons, you’ll know how powerfully haunting his illustrations can be. His work exists on a line between photo-realism and surreality. Faces look real, yet the world around these characters feel as if it emerged from a dream. The original 1995 film adaptation of Jumanji does a reasonably good job of telling its story with those visually softened edges of Van Allsburg’s illustrations but is forced to expand significantly upon the source material. The film would be followed by an animated series by Everett Peck and resembled the look of his work, Duck Man and Rugrats. A little-seen film sequel Zathura would be released in the early 2000s, based on a book that is a spiritual companion to Jumanji more than anything else. This brings us to the current state of Jumanji as a media product.
I was worried that this new picture would ignore the original film to start everything over from the beginning. The creators have more respect than that and acknowledge the first movie a couple times. Jumanji is found on the beach by a father on his jog, and he hands it off to his teenage son who would rather play video games. This is when we learn that the game itself has a consciousness and it transforms the game board into a game cartridge. Twenty years pass and find four high school students (Spencer, Fridge, Martha, and Bethany) are put in detention, tasked with cleaning out the school basement. The quartet discovers the Jumanji game and console, hooking it up to an old television. After selecting characters, they are sucked into the world of Jumanji and thrown into the plot of the game.
If you are familiar with contemporary action-adventure cinema, then nothing here will surprise you. The plot follows some pretty standard points, and the character arcs are telegraphed early in the first act. I found my brain checking out around the second act/third act as the action on the screen just became very noisy and loud. It’s that frantic sort of filming that relies on heavy CG to keep the audience’s attention. Everything wraps up without any twists, and much like the video game, the characters inhabit the story is linear without any meaningful divergence.
What most viewers will take away from this film are the performances of actors in the game. Karen Gillan is charming and does physical comedy very well. Jack Black is having a fun time playing a teenage girl. Kevin Hart is once again the focus of jokes about his height. Dwayne Johnson as Spencer is the best performance, and he does an excellent job of playing against type. When it comes to the villain, played by Bobby Cannavale is the sort of one-dimensional baddies you’d expect from an old video game. Supporting roles are provided by Nick Jonas and Rhys Darby. Jonas is adequate for the part. Darby is having fun playing a repetitive NPC who sets the characters off on their journey.
There’s nothing offensive about Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, but it is definitely a far different animal from the first movie and the book upon which it is based. This new movie is very much a product of its time, and your personal feelings on modern action movies will affect how that statement hits you. I don’t expect I will ever revisit this film but wouldn’t tell anyone curious to avoid it. It’s a perfectly fine piece of cinema that passes the time and provides some chuckles.