Welcome to the Jungle is an entertaining - if shallow - return to the world of Jumanji that's intended more for youngsters than nostalgic adults.
Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is a (quasi) sequel to the 1995 action-adventure film Jumanji, which itself was based on the illustrated children's book by Chris Van Allsburg. Much like the 1995 Jumanji served as a family-friendly starring vehicle for the late Robin Williams, Welcome to the Jungle allows headliner Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson a chance to flex his acting (and literal) muscles in a mostly kid-friendly context. With comedy filmmaker Jake Kasdan - director of the musician biopic parody Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story and the Cameron Diaz comedies Bad Teacher and Sex Tape - calling the shots, Welcome to the Jungle is also much goofier than Joe Johnston's more dramatic take on Jumanji in the 1990s. Welcome to the Jungle is an entertaining - if shallow - return to the world of Jumanji that's intended more for youngsters than nostalgic adults.
Welcome to the Jungle picks up in the present-day, as four very different high schoolers - Spencer Gilpin (Alex Wolff), Martha Kaply (Morgan Turner), Anthony "Fridge" Johnson (Ser'Darius Blain), and Bethany Walker (Madison Iseman) - all find themselves in detention together, for a variety of reasons. While cleaning out an old storage room at school as part of their punishment, the four teenagers stumble upon a mysterious retro video game called Jumanji. Spencer and Fridge manage to convince Martha and Bethany to take a break from their mind numbing work and play the game with them... only for the video game to magically suck all four unsuspecting teens into its virtual world.
Once (literally) in the world of Jumanji, the teenagers find they have transformed into the respective characters that they picked from the game's menu, including: Dr. Smolder Bravestone (Johnson), Franklin "Moose" Finbar (Kevin Hart), Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan), and Professor Sheldon "Shelly" Oberon (Jack Black). The four soon come to discover that they each posses unique abilities and strengths/weaknesses, as well as three lives before it's game over... possibly, for real. With no other choice, the ragtag group is forced to work together and find a way to win the game - by removing the curse that has been placed upon the world of Jumanji by the evil John Hardin Van Pelt (Bobby Cannavale), and then calling out its fantastical name.
Kasdan directed Welcome to the Jungle from a script credited to Jeff Pinkner and Scott Rosenberg - co-creators of the campy animals-run-amok TV series Zoo - as well as The LEGO Batman Movie and Spider-Man: Homecoming cowriters Chris McKenna (who is also credited for the story) and Erik Sommers. That combination of storytelling sensibilities serves Welcome to the Jungle well and allows the movie to keep up a nonstop barrage of jokes throughout its runtime, without ever getting too scary for the juice box crowd during its more serious moments. Welcome to the Jungle takes a few stabs at heavier dramatic subject matter, but avoids diving anywhere near as deep as Johnston's Jumanji does into the tumulus effects that the Jumanji game could have on the lives of those who play it. The Jumanji sequel doesn't leave much of an emotional impact as a result, but makes up for that by presenting neatly-packaged lessons for kids about the importance of working together despite their differences. It also includes a handful of nods to the 1995 Jumanji and '90s culture that older moviegoers can appreciate (heavy-handed they might be).
The teenaged protagonists in Welcome to the Jungle are very much archetypes (the geek, the jock, the outsider, and the hot girl) and are presented as two-dimensional stereotypes for much of the film. What makes the characters fun are the performances by the older actors as their in-game avatars, which make up the vast majority of the movie anyway. Black gets to have a real blast playing an attractive teenaged girl trapped in the body of a middle-aged man, but Johnson and Gillan also fully commit to pretending that they are an ungainly nerd and awkward introvert trapped in the body of The Rock and an obvious riff on '90s era Lara Croft, respectively. Hart is admittedly the weak link of the group, in the sense that he goes with his usual comedy shtick and only partly manages to channel the mannerisms of his inner-teenaged self. However, as was also the case with the duo in Central Intelligence, Johnson and Hart have good comedic chemistry during their scenes together in Welcome to the Jungle.
Neither the mythology nor the supporting characters in the world of Jumanji are developed beyond what one would expected from an actual 1990s video game in Welcome to the Jungle. Fortunately, that's (mostly) by design and allows Cannavale to chew the scenery during his scenes as the movie's own version of the Van Pelt character - which is another element carried over from the 1995 Jumanji. The one individual within the Jumanji game that's afforded any real development is Nick Jonas as Jefferson "Seaplane" McDonough, a key player who joins the main heroes partway through their quest. McDonough's storyline represents Welcome to the Jungle's only real attempt to create pathos on the level with the original Jumanji. Ultimately, though, the film takes the easy way out when it comes to paying off that plot thread and keeps things emotionally simple, for better or worse.
Given Kasdan's background, Welcome to the Jungle is unsurprisingly better at handling comedic moments rather than action sequences. The film gets a fair amount of mileage out of its video game concept, serving up some clever visual gags and punchlines based around the mechanics of the Jumanji game (including, how players die/regenerate and move based on their physical abilities). All four of the movie's leads are skilled in the art of physical comedy too, which allows for lots of jokes based around both their strengths and weaknesses, as well as the idea that they are being "played" by inexperienced teenagers. Welcome to the Jungle was shot largely on location in Hawaii and Kasdan, working in collaboration with cinematographer Gyula Pados (Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials), does a nice job of using that gorgeous backdrop to make the wild world of Jumanji feel big and expansive. Unfortunately, Kasdan and his crew only do a serviceable job of photographing the movie's fight scenes and set pieces - relying too much on shaky closeups, quick cuts, and rubbery CGI to bring the film's (otherwise impressive) stunts to life.
At the end of the day, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is the sort of fluffy, but engaging romp that families should be comfortable taking their young ones to see. (Even the off-color jokes that help Welcome to the Jungle earn its PG-13 Rating are pretty sophomoric, all things considered.) The Jumanji sequel may end up being more of a forgettable moviegoing experience for the current generation of kids than the 1995 film was for children of the '90s, but it's an otherwise innocent, silly, and ultimately harmless piece of December moviegoing fun. Those who are looking for something at the theater that people of all ages can enjoy this winter holiday season - or seek to find a way to leave their world behind once more - may want to try playing this game again.
Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is now playing in theaters nationwide. It is 119 minutes long and is Rated PG-13 for action adventure, suggestive content and some language.
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