The prospect of returning to the world’s most involving board game, Jumanji, is a nostalgic prospect for me. As a child I was very fond of the 1996 Robin William-starring family adventure movie. Jake Kasdan’s new film pays numerous homages to the original (including starting almost exactly where the previous film left off, and a nice name drop for Williams’ Alan Parish), but far more importantly it invokes the same light hearted spirit of adventure.
The film sees four dissimilar teenagers each get detention à la Breakfast Club. Serving their time in the school basement they find an old video game none of them recognise. It seems that the Jumanji board game is capable of updating itself, though only to a halfway point between its current platform and modern technology. Perhaps a shift in a few years’ time would create a Jumanji Tamagochi.
The four young people are sucked into the game and find themselves trapped, not only in a jungle, but also in the bodies of their avatars, played by Dwayne Johnson, Karen Gillan, Jack Black and Kevin Hart. The four must use their unique skills and overcome their differences to beat the game and escape the jungle. They might just also learn a little something about themselves whilst they’re at it.
Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is a very enjoyable adventure movie. There’s a sense of real peril to the often thrilling action, the characterisation is a little broad but undeniably effective and the humour is, for the most part, quite funny. The film does appear to be aiming for the teen market and so there are some obnoxious dick jokes that are a little too long (the jokes, not the…). At its best the jokes are character based and actually benefit the tone of the movie. At their worst they’re merely tiresome.
Karen Gillan’s skimpy costume has been the source of some controversy since it was initially revealed in a production still last summer. The matter is addressed briefly in the film, but remains fairly gratuitous. Unfortunately the film’s problematic gender roles don’t quite stop there. At one stage the heroes become convinced that the key to completing a challenge is for Gillan’s character to seduce two guards. This proves difficult as the girl trapped within Karen Gillan is awkward around boys, resulting in a fairly amusing scene in which Jack Black (who has a flirt trapped within him) teaches Karen Gillan how to be seductive. The training and the ensuing flirtation is played for laughs but it is still a little troubling to see the only female character on the team have to come to terms with accepting her innate sensuality as a character building moment (it’s more broadly about confidence, but this could have been handled better).
The four lead actors carry themselves very well. Johnson proves once again that he has superb comedic instincts and is excellent as a scared young boy who finds himself inside the body of a muscle man. Karen Gillan also proves incredibly funny in her comedic scenes as well as marvellous in the fight sequences. Jack Black flirts with offensiveness in his portrayal of a high-maintenance teenage girl, but is actually too convincing to be troubling. Kevin Hart is, as you’d expect, around for comedic relief and unfortunately isn’t given much of an arc compared to the others.
The premise of the film is as entertaining as it was back in 1996. The nature of the game they must complete is compelling and offers plenty of opportunities for exciting action. Interestingly the characters each have a set number of lives they may expend within the game, allowing for some fairly horrific death scenes of the main characters. This and the inclusion of the ominous riddles of the original film lend a sense of heft to the occasionally excessive action.
The film isn’t afraid to spend twenty minutes letting you get to know these kids before thrusting them into the jungle and the bodies of the A-List stars. This attention to character, always having them as the driving force for the action, makes the film a cut above similar recent action adventure movies. It’s just a shame that the film occasionally steps into some of the more deadly traps of genre convention, including iffy gender politics and awkward comedy.
3.5 / 5