Four teenagers in detention find themselves sucked inside an old Jumanji videogame cartridge, receiving new bodies (played by Dwayne Johnson, Karen Gillan, Kevin Hart, and Jack Black) and a life-or-death mission to save the fictional jungle nation from an evil archaeologist. Escaping the game means defeating the villain, and each of them only has three in-game lives before they’re liable to die for real.
22 years is a long time to wait between a film and its sequel. I have no idea why it took so long for Jumanji, which grossed more than US$250 million back in 1995, to receive a follow-up. Perhaps star Robin Williams was too booked up with other work, or disinterested in returning to his role. Of course with Williams having died in 2014, this new iteration finds itself in a rather odd place. There’s little to tie the two films together other than a title and a deliberately stereotypical jungle theme. The cast and characters have changed entirely. When Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle was released for Christmas 2017, it was not really a reboot – the story had changed too much – and it was not really a sequel. A spin-off is perhaps the easiest description, assuming one is keen to avoid Hollywood-speak such as ‘re-imagining’. It is definitely Jumanji, but probably not as the original film’s fans know it.
Two main elements are immediately clear when watching Welcome to the Jungle. The first is that it has cast its four leads excellently, pairing each actor with a character that perfectly suits their respective comedic styles and personas. It does not stretch anybody’s talents, but it does cast them for a maximum audience reaction. The film gives its audience what they want, which for a populist family blockbuster is no bad thing. The second element, sadly, is a remarkably weak screenplay that works to a lowest common denominator and refuses to offer anything in the way of complexity or original ideas. What you see in Welcome to the Jungle is what you get, and it leaves the actors to do the heavy lifting: any appeal comes from how the story plays out rather than what actually happens.
Left between these two elements, the film winds up feeling rather mediocre. It is a broadly entertaining comedy adventure, and for much of its audience – children in particular – it will be satisfying enough to prove a passable entertainment. The jokes work in fits and starts, and enough draw laughter so as to make the film watchable at the very least. It is undeniably hollow entertainment though, and I cannot imagine it earning too much return business beyond the most undemanding of viewers. A few threads running through the film stumble badly. For example, Karen Gillan gamely does her best in objectifying short-shorts and cleavage-enhancing singlet, but despite the film loading up on jokes mocking the ‘sexy sidekick’ tropes it’s impossible to fail to notice that those jokes also work as an excuse for the very behaviour they are criticising.
Anybody claiming Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is particularly good is over-stating things terribly. At the same time anybody claiming it is actively awful is exaggerating as well. It is watchable, even amiable, but in all honesty that is about as far as it justifiably goes.