Yep, that’s right. I’m actually going to get behind the Jumanji sequel with a straight face and trust me, no one is more surprised about it than I am. On paper, it seemed impossible that a decades-late sequel to a mediocre 90’s kiddie fantasy picture starring a professional wrestler could be anything other than crap. Yet, somehow the team behind Jumanji 2: Yes, We Made This actually turned out well. Is it a masterpiece? Obviously not. Don’t be ridiculous. Is it fun? Oh yeah. Is it funny? Surprisingly, yes. Did Jumanji 2 need to be anything else? Absolutely not. This sequel does its job. It works. Who’d have thunk it?
On the off chance that you completely forgot about the 1995 Robin Williams vs. The Jungle blockbuster, it’s about a mysterious board game that either pulls its players into a jungle or pulls the jungle into the players’ world. Of course, no one really plays board games anymore. So the concept had to change. Well, now Jumanji is a video game that sucks its players into a wacky jungle adventure and teaches them lessons about themselves. In this case, we meet a full-on Breakfast Club full of high school stereotypes who find themselves thrust into a rollicking romp that teaches them how to get out of their tiresome social identities. Woo?
First up, we have the nerdy gamer Spencer (Alex Wolff) who transforms into Dwayne “Still The Rock No Matter What Anyone Says” Johnson, with all the hunky heroism that implies. His jock bro buddy Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain) is transformed into a nerdy zoologist played by Kevin Hart. Shy, awkward, and secretly brilliant teen Martha (Morgan Turner) suddenly finds herself a dance-fighting lady badass (Karen Gillan) in the jungle, and pampered Instagram princess Bethany (Madison Iseman) is turned into Jack Black for extra silliness. Together they must join forces to save Jumanji from generic villain Bobby Cannavale and blah, blah, blah they all become friends.
What makes Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle such a pleasant surprise is the fact that the filmmakers are acutely aware of how ridiculous the whole project is and embrace the silly stupidity. A screenplay Frankensteined together by writers responsible for Community, Alias, and Con Air mix n’ match action and teen movie tropes for self-conscious gags. The clichés are delivered with winks. The stale jokes are given just enough ingenuity to sing (especially all the gags about a teen girl in Jack Black’s body learning the perils of having a penis). Director Jake Kasdan (Orange County, Walk Hard) has enough background in character comedy to get the best out of his cast, while also having a knack with staging cartoonish action. It feels like a real blockbuster while gently mocking all the clichés. That’s not as easy to pull off as it sounds.
Of course, the fact that the cast is so perfectly assigned to roles certainly helps. No one does ironic action hero routines like The Rock. Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle was clearly catered to his skills (as ridiculous as that sounds) and watching him play an award and nerdy teen in a pro wrestler body never ceases to amuse. Jack Black gets some good gags in playing a teen girl stereotype, Kevin Hart handles his one-liners easily, and Karen Gillan walks such a fine line between genuine action movie badass and goofy antisocial weirdo that you can’t help but wonder why she isn’t a bigger star. They all fit their roles perfectly, surrounded by the likes of comedic veterans like Rhys Dharby playing amusingly limited stock video game villains. In fact, the way Jumanji 2 toys with video game conventions is actually rather clever. Oh sure, it’s more aligned with games from the 90s, but that’s also built into the narrative. It’s all surface level stuff (the characters all have three lives and use them, etc.), but enough to show that the folks behind the script actually played at least a single video game before writing the script, which sadly isn’t always the case with this sort of thing.
Now, after all that surprising praise slathered onto Jumanji 2, I have to clarify that this is far from a perfect movie. The material set outside of the game is almost unbearably cornball, which the filmmakers seem to at least realize and keep it to a minimum. There’s no substance here. Every joke gets ran into the ground eventually. It’s all fleeting and forgettable fun. But you know, that’s kind of still a best case scenario for a Jumanji movie. There might be nostalgia for the original, but it’s hardly a masterpiece. It was always a surprisingly decent high concept romp. No more, no less. The sequel is about as good in different ways. So, this thing succeeds on its own terms. Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle will likely still get crushed by Star Wars at the box office this Christmas anyways, but hey! At least it’s a decent movie getting crushed rather than that garbage Jennifer Lawrence/Chris Pratt nonsense from last year. That’s a plus.
Liked this article and want to read more like it? Check out Phil’s take on Blade Runner 2049, Happy Death Day, and It! He also had a chance to sit down with Guillermo Del Toro. Check out his interview here!
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