Some people say you can’t make a good film based on a video game. Those people are right.... and those people are wrong. This generation has seen many failed to “meh” adaptations of big game franchises onto the big screen like the recent efforts of Warcraft and Assassin’s Creed. Most fail through a combination of taking themselves too seriously despite their natural absurdity or trying to condense 20+ hours of video game story into a 2-hour movie. Then consider films like War Games, Tron or Wreck-It Ralph that succeeded. Why? They were films about made-up video games allowing for greater creative freedom, removing detrimental game medium comparisons and making the film about more than just its featured game. You can make a good video game movie if you also make the game. That’s one of several reasons why this two decades belated sequel of the wild board game, Jumanji, succeeds. It’s a parody of its own creation and because of that, it’s an effective comedy. Cue those drums....
When four high schooler students are thrown together in detention, they find an old adventure video game called Jumanji. Playing transports them inside the game’s jungle world as their avatars Bravestone (Dwane Johnson), Shelly (Jack Black), Finbar (Kevin Hart) and Ruby (Karen Gillian). Their only way home is to complete the game. Or will it be game over?
The Breakfast Club in the jungle. That’s exactly what the film is going for with its mix of main characters and shows that said John Hughes special is still a winning formula. The main quartet members are typical high school movie archetypes and their game characters are vast contrasts which create the film’s main source of comedy. The timid geek becomes the big tough adventurer (Johnson), the big football jock is a diminutive weakling (Hart), the shy outcast girl is a badass (Gillian) and the self-obsessed popular girl becomes Jack Black. It’s effective comedic source material from start to finish such but more importantly, it gives each of 4 actors ways to shine. Jack Black steals many scenes playing it as a high school girl. He even makes the dick jokes brilliantly. Or you have moments like Johnson as the big tough guy getting scared by sudden noises. Then there’s standout a scene of Gillian trying to flirt and distract some guards but as the clueless shy girl in the body or Lara Croft. It's a lot of really good plays on the typical typecasting and stereotypes of the actors themselves and in places, it genuinely feels like the actors were having a blast with this. Although Kevin Hart is basically still Kevin Hart the whole frustrated motormouth routine actually works well here because we can relate back to his high school jock alter ego.
The above out-of-character humor in itself would be enough for a decent comedy film but Jumanji stands taller because that’s only its left bulging bicep. Its right flexing gun is drawing humor from its video game subject matter, playing on common game staples and clichés. Even devout non-gamers will still get where the laughs are coming from. They poke fun at cutscenes, impractical outfits, over-exaggerated fight moves, pre-emptive dramatic music (“I hate those drums!”) or unhelpful NPCs repeating the same set answers among other things. By continually switching between gags about and gaming and character switches, neither wears out across the film. That keeps Jumanji feeling like a fun and surprisingly immersive adventure. The self-aware nature of many game-based gags also makes the film seem smarter than most will expect. It’s got a lot of enjoyable video game-esque action sequences that utilize its established over the top, almost cartoon-like physics. Plus, the simple idea of players having limited lives creates some meaningful peril and stakes while allowing for some fun death sequences.
This game still makes a few miss moves though. In places, it’s quite slow-paced and feels like its spinning its wheels rather than moving through the story. Granted, this is often at the reward of good character banter but at times, it feels like Jumanji has a, “don’t laugh and drive policy”. The story has to pull over comedic scenes before continuing. The film does link itself to the 1995 original, nicely including some name-dropping to Robin William’s (RIP) Alan Parish from being trapped in Jumanji’s jungle. Yet there are inconsistencies concerning the game’s jungle world. This time around, it’s shown as more of a Mad Max meets Far Cry setting which doesn’t fit into Alan Parrish emerging from it wearing mostly leaves. The villain character of Bobby Cannavale’s Van Pelt felt rather pointless and forgettable. Like some game villains he existed purely to put a face on minions and enemies of the game but ultimately Jumanji would have been fine without him. Finally, the later introduced with 5th player, Nick Jonas’s, is more of a 5th wheel. The starting 4 produce great chemistry and his addition only serves to obstruct that while offering nothing noteworthy himself.
Despite the adversity of being a reboot, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is a very enjoyable adventure comedy with quite a broad appeal. If you and your in-laws are going stir crazy together this Christmas, then Jumanji would be the ideal film for everybody to escape to. The quality of the cast chemistry and established world building leaves things very open to the possibility of sequels too. Are you ready player one.... two, three and four?