JUMANJI Review: Sequel Gets Lost In Its Own Jungle
Maybe I was a silly young teenager, or maybe there was something to it, but the 1995 Jumanji had a small heart to go along with its rhino-sized adventure. Call it the sentimentality that Robin Williams always evoked in his comedies (Mrs. Doubtfire comes to mind). Or note the fact that the story had a deeper arch about the relationship between a young boy and his frustrated father, whose expectations he could never meet.
All of that is gone from the locked and reloaded sequel, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle. Instead of heart we have biceps, and instead of feelings we have teenage demands. Worse, instead of a deeper story arch, we have incessant comedies about how much easier it is for men to urinate in the jungle. That is not to say that if you are looking for adventure and mindless fun, you may yet find the updated version of the larger-than-life, deadly game game, entertaining.
The movie, to its credit, does not try too hard to emulate or surpass the now somewhat timeless original from the 1990s. Instead, it purports to pick up exactly where the last one (which cleverly left itself open for a sequel) left off. Hey, if little Alan Parish waited 30 something years in the jungle back then, why could we not wait 20 or so for the sequel? So the mischievous board game indeed surfaces at the beach, and its thumping beckons an unsuspecting bystander. That victim turns out to be a young kid named Alex, and the year is but 1996.
Fast-forward to today and Alex is gone but four bratty and disjointed high schoolers are in town. Each lands detention for various reasons. Spencer and Fridge for plagiarizing work, the former a hypochondriac dweeb trying to make friends, the latter a big bully taking advantage of that. There is also Bethany, the prettiest and most self-absorbed girl in school, who is punished for talking on her phone in class, and Martha, the shy nerd who goes to the slammer for criticizing P.E. class. This Breakfast Club of sorts quickly finds itself sucked into the Jumanji world, now a videogame. Their backstories and motivations, so crucial to so many of the jokes and “relationships” that later annoyingly develop during the movie, are given about as short a thrift as this paragraph.
The best part of the new Jumanji is its central joke premise. The four avatars of these teenagers are about as opposite from their true selves as could be. Spencer is now the bulging and smoldering Dr. Bravestone (The Rock), the pretty Bethany is now the overweight Professor Oberon (Jack Black), the bully Fridge is now the miniature Mr. Finbar (Kevin Hart), and the insipid Martha is now killer-of-men Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan). Of the four, Black has the toughest task but also the most obvious gimme—acting like a spoiled brat teenage girl living in a fat man’s body naturally provides a lot of comedic opportunity, and Black really acts it out of the park and out of his comfort zone. The Rock and Hart are amusing enough, but both are really playing themselves.
But, like with other films with a good central premise, a creative structure is not always enough alone. Execution and delivery mean everything, and Jumanji is sorely lacking both in the laughs department as well as in the heart-pounding adventure that also characterized the original. When it comes to making you laugh, although there are some pristine moments, most are just silly teenage gags that involve Oberon admiring his own genitals, or the avatars dying needless deaths and falling back on top of each other. It is not quite grotesque but it is not exactly subtle or clever either. It is slapstick and comedy humor aided with the cheat of special effects.
And when it comes to adventure, I was also not impressed. For a 2017 movie, and one taking place inside a videogame, no less, there is a surprising dearth of excitement. The main villain, a younger version of the evil Colonel Van Pelt (Bobby Cannavale) is pretty uninspired. Bobby did better as a moody bull than as a glass-eyed murderous general. It does not help that you know more or less exactly where the plot is going and the path there has also been set for you. There is never really any sense of danger, even with the ‘we can undo it all’ moniker that the first film used to maximum efficiency.
Rethreads and revisits of old products are all the rage these days. If Jurassic World and others can do it, why can’t others, right? Not exactly. Though the original Jumanji was indeed clamoring for a revival, not all games are created equal. The filmmakers here took a gamble—one which I respect—a gamble to not try to repeat or continue the original but to take its core concept in a new direction. It could have paid off but, thanks to lackluster jokes and uninspired action, it did not in this case. Some curses, I suppose, are best left unlifted.