REVIEW: Jumanji – Welcome to the Jungle is…good enough

Does the original Jumanji have a legacy? There’s no shortage of generation-defining “kids movies” from the 80’s and 90’s; movies that left their impression on so-called millennials who wore out VHS tapes of all their favorite movies, Saturday after Saturday. The Lion King is just such a movie…but that movie is well-regarded as a classic. What about Cool Runnings? There’s a movie no one will be talking about in fifty years but I probably saw it fifty times between 1993 and 1997. Is it a masterpiece? Is it even good? I dunno; I haven’t seen it since puberty, but I can still quote every word of the “Jamaica we have a bobsled team” song. It’s not a movie with a legacy, but it’s a movie that left an impression.

Jumanji left an impression too.

To start with you had Robin Williams, at the height of his “Kids movies” superstardom. You had a concept that may have been eye-roll inducing to adults, but instantly clicked with kids of that era: A board game comes to life. As someone who played scores of board games with my sisters growing up (Clue, Monopoly, Sorry!, Life) it was easy to buy into the concept of a magical board game whose risks and rewards spill out into the real world. And not to be undersold, the movie was directed by Joe Johnston, one of the best “simple, fun, adventure” directors (Honey I Shrunk the Kids, The Rocketeer, Captain America: The First Avenger) of his time. And yet, despite all that going for it, the movie released in 1995 to middling reviews. Roger Ebert only gave it one and a half star, criticizing its ghastly special effects and imagery too frightful for the target audience.

Bollocks: For a ten year old, the effects were incredible and the scary moments…well yeah they were scary: that’s the point. A good scare is good for a kid; it builds character and sort of sticks onto the back of a child’s brain, forming memories that can’t be undone. I remember Jumanji in part because Johnathan Hyde’s giant gun terrified me. Humor only lasts so long. A movie that scares a kid, while giving him a thrill ride, is a movie that will be shown to that kid’s children when he grows up.

That’s what I did with my sons.

The announcement of a Jumanji sequel/reboot did not receive the same hand-wringing hysteria that the Ghostbusters reboot incurred. That’s probably the best indicator that the movie does not actually have much of a legacy. Most people heard that another one was coming, saw the Rock’s name attached and pretty much guessed exactly the kind of movie it would be. The Rock has made a name for himself as a reliable, bankable, action movie star; his movies follow a pretty formulaic pattern. That’s not a bad thing, necessarily, it just means you know what you’re getting. The Rock and Kevin Hart were announced for a Jumanji remake, with a subtitle “Welcome to the Jungle” soon-after attached, and most knew exactly what was coming, and most were either fine with it or indifferent to it.

No one was taking to the interwebs to talk about their childhood being ruined.

The question is, would the movie recognize that it’s not exactly being built on a solid-gold foundation or would it overplay its hand? The worst thing about Hollywood’s love affair with reboots is the assumption that the only way they can work is if you cram in a dozen insider references to make the people who saw the first one say “oh there’s the thing from that one part!” fifty times in ninety minutes. When it’s a movie like Star Wars, okay sure: You get excited to see Nien Nunb in the background, but Jumanji isn’t a franchise that was begging to be reborn, so no one was asking for a movie packed with references. Had Welcome to the Jungle gone that route, it would have bogged itself down and ruined itself. Instead it kept things basic, simple, and beyond one brief wink to the late, great Robin Williams, this might as well have been a stand-alone movie.

Was it perfect? Not at all, but it’s also not bad. The plot centers around a four-some of vastly different high schoolers, who find their way in detention—Breakfast Club style—and then find their way inside the Jumanji game (as opposed to the game coming to our world; a nice twist). Inside the game the characters take on different personas and as a result, learn some things about themselves and…grow, I suppose. Along the way there’s a very video game like plot about getting a gem back to a statue, progressing through levels with only three lives apiece, and being chased by the big bad. It’s all very basic, in fact it might be too basic.

The four high schoolers are walking stereotypes. There’s the nerd, there’s the jock, there’s the vain, popular girl and the shy, awkward girl. In the game the characters simply flip: The nerd becomes The Rock and the jock becomes Kevin Hart, the vain girl becomes Jack Black and the awkward girl becomes Karen Gillan. Again, it’s all very superficial. The plot is paper thin and the villain is as underdeveloped as Bowser in a Mario game.

And yet, the movie mostly works…for two reasons.

First, the four in-game characters do a great job playing the part of other people trapped in their bodies. The Rock isn’t just The Rock, he’s a nerd trapped in the Rock’s body. Jack Black isn’t just Jack Black, he’s a beautiful-and-she-knows-it high school babe trapped in the body of Jack Black. Everyone is given the opportunity to act like fools and everyone does it admirably. This movie doesn’t succeed because of its plot but because of the actors simply riffing off one another.

Second, the humor is actually, surprisingly, funny. There are a few one-liners that fall flat, but those are the exception, not the rule. With almost every movie like this, the humor is usually so banal it ruins the whole picture. Here, every character has at least one hilarious moment and several others that are solidly funny. The standout is Jack Black, who plays the part of a socialite hottie faced with being a “middle age, overweight man” with pitch-perfect accuracy. Probably the best running gag involves Black’s discovery of her his penis, with the highlight being a pit stop to go pee.

Kevin Hart and the Rock continue to show great chemistry, just as they had in Central Intelligence (they just need to go ahead and remake Twins) and Karen Gillan (probably best known as Nebula in the Guardians of the Galaxy films) holds her own and delivers some great gags as well.

Is Jumanji 2 going to set the world on fire? Is it going to establish a legacy that will last fifty years? Did the first one? No, but it did pack enough humor, thrills and adventure to captivate a ten year old me. Watching my sons enjoy the sequel leads me to believe it will at least captivate another generation of kids, who will grow up to show it to their kids one day too.

7/10 – Solidly funny despite a paper-thin plot. It’s not a movie that I will come back to, but I’m not the target audience. Check back with my son in twenty years.

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