I was the first to be sceptical when I heard about a new Jumanji movie. Like many people of my generation, I grew up with the original Robin Williams film, and I thought that in this era of tasteless reboots in name only, the end result would only be an insult to the late actor’s memory. I couldn’t have been more wrong. This latest Jumanji film is a fun, rollercoaster ride blockbuster. It doesn’t aspire to much high cinema, but what it sets out to do, it does well.
Jumanji: Welcome To The Jungle only has tangential links to the original, but these are handled in decent enough ways. The original featured a jungle themed board-game that was able to generate real animals and monsters from the game, and which you had to “play” to win and banish the box. This instalment flips the tables when it sucks the four protagonists into the game instead, which now takes the form of a videogame system rather than a boardgame. Aside from that premise, there’s one mention of previous protagonist Alan Parrish, and that’s done more as an Easter Egg than anything else.
The videogame premise may not be original, but is handled well here. We are introduced to four high school students. Spencer is nerdy, Bethany is spoiled, Fridge is the jock, and Martha is shy and nerdy. However, once sucked into the game, they become the avatars of the characters they unknowingly chose. The nerdy Spencer is now Smolder Bravestone (Johnson), and the tough Fridge is now his manservant, the diminutive Mouse (Hart). The angle of an actor playing a character who is actually a different character is done well here, and the contrast between who these characters all and who they see themselves as in the game adds to the comedy and character development in meaningful ways.
The characters are actually all nicely rounded, and have decent growth arcs by the end of the movie. The rest of the runtime is filled with decent enough set-pieces, comedy and action in equal measures. There are some old-fashioned ideas about games, but they play well into the comedy, from having limited lives, to dealing with NPCs who only repeat the one line over and over, to having to face the fact that your character only has limited special abilities and skills.
The central plot in the game is very much just something to have the characters do while they get to know each other and overcome their own personal issues. They have to return a gemstone to a sacred mountain while facing against a generically evil type villain, but that isn’t the point – seeing all these actors interacting as the avatars of their teenage players was.
I watched Jumanji: Welcome To The Jungle with the whole family, and we had a lot more fun than when we normally have to compromise and get a family movie out for the kids. It’s not the sort of film that wins Oscars, but then again it doesn’t want to be. In some ways though, it even succeeds at portraying the strange situation of online avatars representing us better than Ready Player One does, and that was the entire point of that movie. Here it happens accidentally, almost by chance.