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Twenty-two years ago, the original Jumanji ended with the titular board game lying half buried on a beach. Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, the much belated follow-up, begins with the same image. A father retrieves the Jumanji box from the sand and takes it home to his son Alex, who promptly ignores it in favor of his very 1996-looking home video game system. Not content to be set aside, Jumanji transforms itself into a more appealing video game cartridge. His interest now piqued, Alex pops in the game, presses play, and … you can guess what happens next.
Or can you? After all, it’s been a long, long time since Robin Williams ran through the streets battling hordes of mischievous monkeys and avoiding stampeding rhinos. And while some fans consider it a classic, how many people under the age of 25 even recognize the name Jumanji, much less remember that it is a possibly sentient game that traps people in its fantasy world for mostly benevolent purposes? Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle sort of assumes everyone remembers that, at least at the beginning.
Newbies need not be concerned, though. Other than the initial setup, which the film does eventually get around to explaining, and a small mention of Robin Williams’ original character, there is nothing in Welcome to the Jungle that requires any knowledge of the first movie. The movie tips its hat to nostalgia rather quickly and then moves on.
As such, we quickly arrive in the present day where four disparate high-schoolers, in tried and true Breakfast Club fashion, are being sentenced to detention by their principal in hopes that it will help them contemplate what kind of people they want to be for the rest of their lives. Rather than do that, though, the four stumble across Alex’s old game system and decide to play Jumanji instead.
This is the point where Welcome to the Jungle goes its entirely own way. In the first film, players had to face Jumanji’s challenges in the real world. This time around our protagonists find themselves transported into the video game itself where they appear as the likenesses of the characters they have chosen to play.
The nerdy milquetoast Spencer becomes the dashing and muscular Dr. Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne ‘The Rock” Johnson). The school’s star football player Fridge is transformed into weakling zoologist Mouse Finbar (Kevin Hart). The socially awkward Martha is now a butt-kicking Lara Croft lookalike named Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan). Perhaps most startling of all, the narcissistic Bethany finds herself forced into the decidedly non-female form of portly Professor Sheldon Oberon (Jack Black). To round out the team, they are soon joined by the still trapped Alex, who has been stuck in Jumanji for 20 years as the roguish pilot Seaplane McDonough (Nick Jonas).
Story-wise, it’s a clever if somewhat obvious move. Much like the school principal, Jumanji desires that our heroes confront their own weaknesses. It makes them do so by forcing the kids to play as their polar opposites. Spencer has to be brave, Fridge has to rely on book knowledge, Martha has to become outgoing, and Bethany … well, it’s hard to coast along on your looks when you’re stuck in the body of the guy who played Nacho Libre. Box office-wise, it’s a brilliant ploy, as it allows our gang of vaguely familiar teens to be replaced for most of the movie by a bevy of bankable faces.
The body switch is also where most of the humor in the movie is derived. It’s admittedly fun watching the hulking Johnson, who is obviously having a blast playing against type, run in terror at the sight of a squirrel. Black’s character earns the movie its PG-13 rating as much mirth is made out of her exploring her new male anatomy. Don’t worry, parents, it never gets too crude. As for Kevin Hart, he plays Kevin Hart, so him just standing there generates laughs.
Now there has been some minor online controversy surrounding Gillan’s character. Feminists who have apparently never played a video game before have taken umbrage at Jumanji requiring Ruby Roundhouse to use her womanly assets to distract opponents before being allowed to unleash her dubious skill of dance-fighting. In their rush to declare the movie sexist, they seem wholly unaware that this is actually a satire of some of the sexist trappings built into modern video games. Ah well, some people just can’t laugh.
Most everyone else will, though. Where the original Jumanji was heavy on adventure, this new take relies more on jokes, most of which work thanks to the cast involved. So, while there is nothing special about Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, it’s entirely successful as a throwaway piece of entertainment. In the years to come, no one may remember it as fondly as the original, but they don’t all have to be classics.