a JUMANJI: WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE musing

 Kevin Hart, Karen Gillan, Jack Black and Dwayne Johnson star.

Kevin Hart, Karen Gillan, Jack Black and Dwayne Johnson star.

I don’t really get the deep-rooted love for JUMANJI (1995). I liked the movie as a kid, but it seemed like a mythology/world that could be expanded upon easily. JUMANJI: WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE, a sequel, does a great job of not tying itself too much to the 1995 film, and tells a compelling story within this world. When a father brings his son a board game he came upon at a beach, the game manifests itself into a video game cartridge, which the son subsequently plays. Twenty years later, four high schoolers come upon the game and are transported into its jungle.

It’s a great, easy way to divorce this story from JUMANJI, having no characters carried over. Instead, the teens are controlling avatars within the video game, allowing for some hilarious body-swap humor. All the Jumanji characters’ actors get to play against type (somewhat): Dwayne Johnson, looking as built as ever, gets a more sensitive character (or at least a little less bravado than we are used to); Kevin Hart is literally playing a big man in a little body (but when have we not seen that?); Karen Gillan turns up the teenage awkwardness and outcast qualities to great comedic effect; and Jack Black gets the most material to play around with as a typical popular high school teen. They all do a stellar job of playing teens lost in new bodies in a world they neither wanted nor expected to be in, but it’s really when these older actors get those few quieter scenes that the movie really shines.

While body swap movies can be very hit or miss, the Jumanji avatar actors have an excellent handle on their teen counterparts’ personalities. This leads to layered dialogue, but director Jake Kasdan doesn’t really let more interesting themes/moments play out much. There is so much room, so much potential for this movie to be greater, darker and more subversive, but it feels like a studio product the more these beats are skipped over. In one case, Johnson makes a decision that leads to one of Hart’s three video game lives being lost, but the darker implication of that choice is never hinted at, rather thrown away for a penis joke. (And there are PLENTY of penis jokes that I could have done without had Black not pulled them off [ha?] so well.)

At times, it’s difficult to decipher the messages JUMANJI: WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE is trying to send. One scene would hit upon a very truthful character moment, then the following scene involves a woman using her sexuality to get the group to the next ‘level’. They make up for that by having her use her video game “Strengths” to defeat the bad guys, though. It’s a weird push and pull with the morality of this movie.

WELCOME is still a great expansion of whatever JUMANJI mythology ever existed. Most importantly, it’s respectful to what made the original so great, the performance of Robin Williams. JUNGLE won’t (and smartly didn’t) step on too many toes (except for those who think opening this universe up to more adventures is a bad decision), and will serve to entertain everyone. Those few terrific moments outweigh the mixed ones and jokes that don’t land. I wish that this installment fulfilled its potential, but it did it’s job; I’m curious and excited for what comes next. A forest, maybe?

RATING: PURCHASING FOR MY COLLECTION

(Refer to my rating system HERE!)