More than 20 years after a board game wreaked havoc on the Parrish family, a new group of four very different high school kids discover and unwittingly take on the updated, modernised game of intrigue, threat and possible death, in order to save a land and rid an enemy.
Director: Jake Kasdan
Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Jack Black, Kevin Hart, Karen Gillan, Nick Jonas, Bobby Cannavale
Run Time: 119 Minutes
Release Date: 20 December
Sequels and/or reboots are always viewed with more than a helping of trepidation, and often for good reason. So when it was announced back in early 2016 that a new version of the much-loved 1995 Robin Williams movie was in the works, there were plenty of dissenting voices, outraged that another 90s film was being mined for a new version in the modern day. The casting of Dwayne Johnson impressed some, though many were still cautious. Johnson himself quickly moved to allay fears, insisting that this would not be a reboot but instead pay tribute to both Williams himself and the movie as a whole. The first trailers came and went, with many left optimistic by what they had seen, while the existing doubters maintained they weren’t impressed and remained pessimistic about the movie.
So now that the film is here, with all the doubting behind us, what do we have? Thankfully, it seems Johnson’s assertions were accurate; Welcome to the Jungle does indeed honour the original, while also adding an effective modern twist that will help it to appeal to a new generation of viewers. As the trailers have shown us – and therefore this can be included here and this remain spoiler-free – what was a board game in 1995 is now a video game which sees the main cast become the game’s avatars and experience the trials and tribulations that the game brings. The initial jokes of the ‘real life’ people inside these video game characters and their bodies – specifically image-obsessed Bethany’s transformation into Jack Black – offer some laughs, with Black in particular coming across well with his performance.
Johnson himself, as he has proven before, is a reliable hand in the lead role, his natural charisma and presence coming across well. He and Kevin Hart have worked together before, of course, and the familiarity shows in their scenes together. Hart seems to be an acquired taste for many, and while he doesn’t necessarily stand out as a show-stealer here, his established partnership with Johnson works well. They do a good job of integrating the high school rivalry between their ‘real world’ counterparts into their performances, coupled with the natural chemistry they have. In fact, Johnson shares good chemistry with all of his co-stars, though there is a slight setback when he and Karen Gillan’s avatars have to act out a budding romance between Spencer and Martha. In fact, the whole romance side plot feels out of place, as the story has enough to go on without a relationship between two of the four main characters. Hart comes across pretty well here, with a real-world big football jock now inhabiting the avatar in the form of a much-shorter, backpack-carrying weapon valet, something Hart does well with.
Regrettably, Gillan feels a little under-used here. Away from the Marvel role she has become more famous for over the last few years, this felt like a chance where we could see more of what she can do when not coloured blue from head to toe. Her rather skimpy attire – something initially picked up on during early trailers – is addressed pretty quickly and its suitability rightfully questioned, but outside of that, the budding romance and a few high-energy action scenes, there isn’t too much more. It is Jack Black, however, that maybe surprises most. It’s fair to say that he hasn’t hit the high notes with some of his more recent films, however here he is close to the form that established his early-gained reputation. His portrayal of an image-obsessed, slim high school girl is very good, despite being in a role that could have come across as somewhat creepy. He works well with the rest of the cast, offering an indication that maybe he works best in a supporting role rather than the lead.
Outside of the main cast and Nick Jonas’ later arrival, the only other character to be given any kind of focus is Bobby Cannavale’s antagonist John Hardin Van Pelt, who gets a slither of a backstory, while the whole time the viewer is thinking why he even needs to be here. This is no slight on Cannavale, who I very much like as an actor and enjoy watching, however at no point does this film really feel like it needs a villain. The story, as it plays out, could really still have progressed without Cannavale here. Admittedly, it would be strange to have an action movie like this not have a bad guy for our heroes to have a foil against, but this may be one of those rare occasions where a bad guy is just not required. Van Pelt is so paper-thin as a villain, and at no point do you think he is actually going to succeed with his bad-guy plan. It puts a tarnish on what builds into a very enjoyable film, though the kids a lot of this film is aimed towards won’t care too much.
All in all, it’s hard to compare this to the original movie, as aside from the two sharing a title, there is very little cohesion between the two, and that’s no bad thing. Aside from the required reference to the Williams outing, Welcome to the Jungle essentially leaves behind the Jumanji link and becomes its own movie; an action movie for all the family. Ages young and old will find plenty to laugh at and like about this movie, with some of the jokes admittedly designed to sail over youngsters’ heads while kids will find humour in the slapstick elements. The 12A rating is a little surprising, though some parts of the movie do call for it, mainly the aspect of the in-game characters having three lives and all of them using some of those. Ultimately, there is very little that will leave the kids scared, as the character ‘deaths’ in question often veer more towards comedic rather than gory.
Despite Johnson’s budding reputation for franchise-saving/-building, it does not feel like this will lead to another outing from the Jumanji tale, irrespective of however much this ends up bringing in. While the original Jumanji did not require a follow-up, Welcome to the Jungle certainly doesn’t disgrace it, though neither does it amplify a need for its own successor. It achieves what it sets out to do, doesn’t put things in place to build to future sequels, and above all is a very enjoyable movie.
Sometimes that’s enough.