The original Jumanji was released at the height of Robin Williams’ career in the 1990s and offered adventure and escapism for the whole family. The same can mostly be said for its sequel, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, which stars Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Jack Black and Karen Gillan.
The stakes may be low and the plot flimsy, but the cast acquit themselves well, which can be hailed a minor miracle considering Hart’s involvement. It’s the year 1996 and Alex is bestowed the namesake enchanted board game by his father after he stumbles upon while out on a run. He’s initially disinterested, but when the transforms into a cartridge overnight, Alex slots it in and is immediately sucked into the jungles of Jumanji.
Fast forward two decades and four teenagers – Spencer, Fridge, Martha and Bethany – are hauled into detention for bad behaviour. While in the school’s basement, they uncover a console with the Jumanji cartridge already inserted. They decide to play and, like Alex, quickly find themselves transported, not to mention transformed into their avatars: Dr. Smolder Bravestone (Johnson), Ruby Roundhouse, Moose Finbar and Professor Sheldon Oberon. Their initial exposure to the other world allows for many hysterical moments as all four characters also come to terms with their alter-egos, which includes Bethany realising she’s trapped inside the body of a middle-aged, overweight man, before being torn to shreds by a hippopotamus. It’s the start of a performance by Black that’s one of the films better elements.
In order to complete the mission and be let free, the foursome must restore order to Jumanji by returning a stolen stone to the Jaguar’s Eye. And so begins an adventure that’s contrived, yet entertaining nonetheless. There are action scenes and big set pieces involving daring escapes and snake wrangling. Each character is awarded their own time to shine. Johnson is naturally charismatic, even more so as he’s playing someone who’s best attribute is his ability to smoulder. The former Doctor Who companion comes towards the middle of the film when Martha takes flirting lessons from Bethany in order provide a distraction while the others steal a helicopter to help with their plan, and even Hart is less irritating than normal.
It’s well paced, with enough twists to keep the audience hooked for its relatively tight run time. Jake Kasdan, who last directed Cameron Diaz and Jason Segal in Sex Tape, proves a nice match for the material, elevating the fairly rote narrative to deliver humour and messages of acceptance and self-discovery. The sequel ties itself nicely into the original, with a few callbacks here and there and a fitting tribute to Williams, whose unfortunate death is sad to this day. The stakes are kept low throughout, however, which means it’s competent but also safe. No real risks are taken, and although the idea of three lives is played with, it never really means anything. But when you consider what could have been, the fact that it entertains is enough. And it doesn’t hurt to have Black on top body swap form delivering such lines as “I can’t even with this place”.
Jamie Neish | @JamieNeish