Film Review: Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle

Few things about popular films annoy me more than when a film uses the title of a previous work, but invents a new story to go along with it. It seems like cheating to me. A familiar title provides some recognition, but the filmmaker can take the story in any direction they wish.

21 Jumpstreet is a prime example of this. The film starred Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum, and the plot had almost nothing to do with the television show from two decades before. Actually, this might not be the best choice to prove my point because I thoroughly enjoyed 21 Jumpstreet, and the sequel, 22 Jumpstreet. (Although I do think the sequel should have been called 42 Jumpstreet. No one asked me though.)

But it seems to me that if you're going to use the same name as a previously-produced film, television show, book, or any other work of art, the plot of the new work should somehow connect with the plot of the original work.

I saw the original Jumanji in theaters when it came out, but it didn't make much of an impact on me. I've never seen it again, and it never occurs to me as a film I should show to my kids. Other than animals running through a house, I don't remember anything about it.

However, I know that this new film, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, isn't related to the original film, except that they're both descendents of the original work, a 1981 children's book called Jumanji. And although I found the original Jumanji film forgettable, I suspect this one will remain among my favorite family films forever.

The plot is simple. Four high schoolers find a game called Jumanji-updated from the board game version in the original mid-90s film to a video game-decide to play the game, and are magically transported inside the game, where they become the characters they chose at the beginning of the game and have to complete a mission in order to return to their real lives.

The high schoolers are a disparate bunch. There's the geeky, lanky white kid, Spencer, who used to be good friends with the athletic black kid, Fridge, but is now relegated to doing his homework for him. There's the superficial blonde girl, Bethany, and the moody, serious girl, Martha. As they each end up in detention for various reasons the film begins with a vibe similar to The Breakfast Club.

Once they're sucked into the game, they're all transformed into characters that are almost too-predictably opposite their real-life personas. Geeky Spencer becomes a character portrayed by Dwayne Johnson, has no weaknesses, and can throw people throw walls. Athletic Fridge becomes a character portrayed by Kevin Hart. At least a foot shorter, not as tough, and no longer the center of attention, Fridge's personality is still intact, but he must adjust to his new limitations. Martha becomes a badass martial artist portrayed by Karen Gillan. She must work to overcome her shyness, and seems uncomfortable with her new power, but she adjusts. The biggest transformation occurs with Jack Black's portrayal of Bethany. Her horror at becoming "an overweight, middle aged man," provides more than a bit of satisfaction.

With such predictable, cliché transformations, it would be easy for the film to run off the rails, as we become indifferent as to whether the characters are saved or not.

The performances of the actors are too good to let that happen though.

Jack Black eased up on his ever-present Jack Black-ness, and instead of Jack Black doing his version of a character (I like Jack Black, but he's always Jack Black in every single film), we get the feeling that a teenage girl is doing her version of Jack Black.

Dwayne Johnson shows that he can carry a film. He's the leader of the pack, and given his character's importance in the game, he has to express charisma, and he does that easily.

I'm not a fan of Kevin Hart most of the time. He's like cyanide: a little goes a long way. But the rest of the cast is there to keep the spotlight off of him, so he's left to interject it short bursts, which is the way I like him best.

Karen Gillan has a scene where one moment she has to awkwardly flirt with two men, before kicking their asses a moment later, and she pulls it off, no problem. One of the only problems with the film is I wished she would have been given more to do. A couple of her scenes are critical, but we don't get to see as much of her personality as we do the other three.

I wish Hollywood made more movies like this. It's pure adventure comedy that appeals to the whole family. Once the kids enter the video game the plot is non-stop, and there are enough twists and turns to keep us interested beyond the gimmicky character transformation.

I wouldn't mind another Jumanji film after this one, although it's difficult to imagine how they could make another with this cast. It would almost have to be an entirely different story. In the meantime, maybe I'll go back and watch the original Jumanji. But I already know there's no way that film will be as satisfying as this one.

4 stars

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