Review: Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (2017)


Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (2017)

Directed by: Jake Kasdan | 119 minutes | action, adventure | Actors: Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Jack Black, Karen Gillan, Rhys Darby, Bobby Cannavale, Nick Jonas, Alex Wolff, Ser’Darius Blain, Madison Iseman, Morgan Turner, Sean Buxton, Mason Guccione, Marin Hinkle, Tracey Bonner, Najah Jackson, Natasha Charles Parker

For many who grew up in the 1990s, director Joe Johnston’s imaginative adventure film ‘Jumanji’ (1995) is a beloved classic. The film revolves around Alan Parrish, who as a child is sucked into the mysterious board game Jumanji and gets stuck in it for years. He can’t be freed until brother and sister Peter and Judy Shepherd finish the game, but they must first eliminate the wild animals that are freed through the enchanted board game and endanger their lives. Especially thanks to Robin Williams, who plays the adult Alan Parrish, ‘Jumanji’ has acquired a kind of cult status, but the film also did very well commercially at the time. There was never a sequel, until 2017, when Jake Kasdan ventured into ‘Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle’. The concept of the original – after the book of the same name by Chris Van Allsburg from 1981 – remained broadly the same, although some things were adapted to modern times. The board game has been exchanged for a video game, where the unsuspecting protagonists are ‘morphed’ into the adventure of a lifetime. In addition, this ‘Jumanji 2.0′ is full of nice gimmicks, most strikingly the confusion of characters that the heroes of this light-hearted and unpretentious comic adventure film have to deal with.

We begin in 1996, a year after the events surrounding Alan Parrish. The father of teen Alex Vreeke (Mason Guccione) finds a board game on the beach and gives it to his son. He initially has little eye for it, but when the game miraculously changes into a video game at night, he suddenly wants to play with it. Flash forward to twenty years later, where we meet four teenagers at a high school in Brantford, New Hampshire. Spencer (Alex Wolff) is the archetypal nerd who prefers to play computer games all day and do his classmates’ homework in addition to his own homework. One of them is Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain), a strong and sporty boy who would rather hang out in the fields around school than sit with his nose in books. Bethany (Madison Iseman) is the most popular girl in school who only cares about her looks, social media accounts and ego, and Martha (Morgan Turner) is a shy, cynical girl who doesn’t like self-centered types like Fridge and Bethany. Coincidentally, all four of them have to be detained on the same day and the four of them have to do a shitty job in a dim basement in the school. How coincidental it is that all kinds of obscure objects are up for grabs in that basement, including the game and the console that Alex Vreeke played with twenty years ago on the night before he disappeared from the face of the earth. Spencer and Fridge like a game and decide to turn the machine on. The girls also decide to participate and choose a character. But then they are sucked into the game console…

And then the four teenagers are in the game Jumanji. Not as themselves – and here’s that aforementioned gimmick – but as one of the characters. Spencer is now a strong muscle (Dwayne Johnson), Fridge has just shrunk but suddenly knows all about animals (Kevin Hart), Martha has turned into a babe who stands her ground and is an expert at martial arts (Karen Gillan) and Bethany is completely unrecognizable as the chubby professor Sheldon Oberon (Jack Black). This new appearance naturally causes the necessary hilarity. In a curious way, Black and Johnson in particular manage to convey their surprise at their new appearance very convincingly. Kasdan and the team of screenwriters built around Chris McKenna have even more fun in store around the phenomenon of ‘gaming’; thus they all have three lives and if they lose one of them, they will fall from the sky at the place where their previous life ended. It is also very funny that various non-player characters are incorporated in the film; characters whose sole function is to propel the story forward and to help the characters that can be played with. Often these types of characters only have a limited number of sentences that are programmed in, and ‘Jumani: Welcome to the Jungle’ responds to that in a nice way.

And that’s how you can say it for the film as a whole: Kasdan and McKenna took a good look at what the computer games from the 1990s look like and designed their film in the same – viewed through twenty-first-century glasses, a bit flawed – way. The special effects are therefore not completely neatly worked out, the quest of the foursome is pretty standard and the villain (Bobby Cannavale) comes off completely lousy. But aren’t the villains in the games of that time also one-dimensional and colorless? In this case, however, the jungle setting is only the setting for the second layer hidden in ‘Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle’, namely the one in which four errant teenagers see their eyes opened to the world around them. The way they view themselves and each other changes drastically during this adventure. The interplay between the actors is what makes this film such a pleasure to watch; the beauty queen disguised as Jack Black who teaches the beautiful Karen Gillan (in reality the shy mouse Martha) a lesson in seduction. The awkward kiss between Gillan and Dwayne Johnson again. Black who shows his most philanthropic side by giving mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Those are the moments that make this film sparkle. Even Kevin Hart has his moments. The actors clearly had a lot of fun making the film. And that’s what makes Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle the surprisingly entertaining blockbuster it is.

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