“Jumanji: Welcome To The Jungle” has only the most tangential connection to the critically ravaged but popular Robin Williams movie which had only a fleeting connection to the 1981 story by Chris Van Allsburg. The basic premise of a game that springs to life survives, but that’s about it. The new film trades on the goodwill of the other projects and could just as easily have been called “Java 1.2: Welcome To The Jungle” or any other title that might conjure up nostalgia for the 1990s.
The premise is basic. Nerdy gamer Spencer Gilpin (Alex Wolff), mean girl Bethany Walker (Madison Iseman), jock Anthony “Fridge” Johnson (Ser’Darius Blain) and Martha Kaply (Morgan Turner) are assigned to detention. Stuck in a storage room, they discover a dusty old Jumanji gaming console. Hooking it up, the game sputters to life. “A game for those who seek to find,” it says, “a way to leave their lives behind.” As each click on an avatar they are suddenly swept away into the world of the game, plopped down in the Jumanji jungle and in the middle of an escapade.
They also look different. Their teenage selves are gone, replaced by heroic videogame characters. Spencer is now Dr. Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson), a buff hero, fearless with no vulnerabilities. Martha is warrior Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan) while Fridge is zoologist Moose Finbar (Kevin Hart). The biggest change is reserved for Bethany who is now cryptographer Professor Sheldon Oberon (Jack Black).
Adjusting to their new bodies presents challenges. “I don’t have my Claritin!” Spencer complains. “I look like a garden gnome,” whines Bethany. But soon a bigger problem presents itself. How do they get back? Enter game guide Nigel (Rhys Darby) who gives them the rules—to leave game they must return a jewel, stolen by the evil explorer John Van Pelt (Bobby Cannavale), to the eye of the giant Jaguar statue located deep in the jungle. To do so they must complete different game levels. As they survive each level the danger increases on the next but each challenge also teaches them something about themselves that will apply to their regular lives if they are successful and make it home.
Robin Williams claimed the word “jumanji” is a Zulu word meaning “many effects.” It’s a definition director Jake Kasdan seems to have taken too literally. The family-friendly action is boosted by fake looking CGI effects that are almost entirely without charm.
Luckily the cast has charm to burn. When the CGI isn’t clogging up the screen the actors do a decent job of selling the story. Much of the movie’s humour comes from the actors playing against type. The muscle-bound Johnson as a scaredy-cat and Hart’s slapstick swing for the fences every time but it is Black, as a coquettish teenage girl, who has the best lines. When Bethany learns about going to the bathroom while standing up he/she squeals, “This is so much easier! You have a handle!” Later as the game intensifies he/she says, “I feel like since I lost my phone my other senses have heightened.”
You don’t have to work too hard to find the laughs here, but they are courtesy of the cast’s delivery and charisma not the flimsy script. When they aren’t cracking wise the script—credited to no less than five writers—has characters spend too much time talking about what they’re going to do just before they do it.
When they aren’t droning on about the game to one another or the audience they are engaged in some light pop psychology. “We’ve always only had one life to live,” Moose opines as Bravestone’s videogame power bars deplete, “it depends on how you live it.” It’s as deep as a lunch tray
There’s also much talk of empowerment. In the land of Jumanji the smart ones are gifted with physical progress while the damn bulbs are bumped up intellectually. The mean girl learns selflessness while the brainiac, who had no one use for Phys Ed class, learns the benefit of dance fighting as exercise. By the time the end credits roll everyone are better off than when the movie started… except maybe the audience who deserve more than a handful of laughs and warmed over 90s nostalgia.