As a child of the 1990s, there is a certain list of movies everyone had to have seen by a certain point or they’d be ostracized and labeled as weirdos. Elementary school was tough. You had to have seen “The Sandlot,” “Holes,” at least one of the “Halloweentown” movies and “Jumanji.” The list goes on, but that last one holds more sentimental value to me because it’s actually the film that introduced me to the late Robin Williams’ live action work.
As fans of the film may remember, two children find a mysterious board game in 1995 that, when played, unleashes the wrath of the jungle. Williams plays Alan Parish, a man who had been trapped inside the game for 26 years. The original “Jumanji” actually took itself rather seriously, exploring the tragic happenings of when a parent loses their child and vice versa. Can you imagine my reaction when I saw they were making another one with Dwayne Johnson and Kevin Hart?
It was clear from the very beginning that “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” wasn’t going to hold itself over the original, and became a straight comedy. Even if some things did bother me, like the aforementioned trauma of loss being made the butt of a joke at one point, I really can’t fault it. A problem with tactless comedy is a problem with 2010s blockbusters as a whole.
Whereas the original followed a group of players in the real world, this film brings four students from different walks of life together by trapping them within the world of Jumanji — but with a twist. Instead of a board game, Jumanji has transformed itself into a video game — complete with levels, NPCs, cutscenes and a quest. Whoever each player chose as their avatar in the selection menu before getting sucked in visually represents them in the game world.
The insecure nerd Spencer becomes Dr. Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson). Football star Fridge is diminished into the weak Franklin Finbar (Kevin Hart). Bashful know-it-all Martha transforms into the kung-fu badass Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan). Last, and probably the best play against type, is the selfie queen Bethany turning into Dr. Shelly Oberon (Jack Black), an “overweight middle aged man.” To get home, they need to return an item to its rightful place.
The likability of the cast carries way more of this movie than the plot. Though the film has its fun pointing out certain tropes in video games, it never seeks to rise beyond what only the most basic gamer would understand. There are levels. If your life count reaches zero, you die. Each character comes with a different set of strengths and weaknesses. If Jumanji went out of its way to transform itself to appeal to the modern player, why settle for what appears to be an SNES cartridge? As a fan of the system myself, I know that not everyone appreciates the retro. Imagine what conventions would be subverted if it updated into something more contemporary, like a “Dark Souls” game or even an online shooter.
I’ll be thinking about this, and then Jack Black will strut around biting his lip; and then I’ll wonder why I even cared in the first place. I knew what this was going to be. Viewers know what they’re going to the theater to see. “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” is harmless, almost to a fault. If the concept still intrigues and you like the cast, it’s worth the matinee.