Veteran Cast Saves Jumanji Redux
Reboot, remake, homage, rip-off, call them what you will, films that recycle old ideas have been with us since the early days of cinema. If it’s successful once on the silver screen, studio execs are libel to keep going back to that particular well until it runs dry. We’re in the period now of what I like to call “nostalgia reboots,” properties long thought dead (Men in Black III, Independence Day: Resurgence, etc.) yet resuscitated in order to fill the respective studio’s coffers and take advantage of new special effects techniques that will supposedly make them better.
Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is a perfect example of this sort of film and it’s one of the better entries as it manages to incorporate elements from the original (the 1995 Robin Williams starrer) while updating the premise to incorporate modern concerns and appeal to today’s audience. While the board game from the original makes an obligatory appearance early on, contests in the video arena drive this story.
A mini Breakfast Club kicks things off as four disparate high school students find themselves in detention with little to do. Awkward smart guy Spencer (Alex Wolff) and football lunk Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain), former best friends are assigned to take the staples of a mountain of magazines so they can be recycled with clueless rebel Martha (Morgan Turner) and the ever vacuous Bethany (Madison Iseman). Boredom soon gets the best of them and they mange to find an old video counsel that’s been donated to the school. Once it’s hooked to an old TV, a video version of that old chestnut Jumanji pops up and each is required to select an avatar before play can being. However, once that’s done, they find themselves literally sucked into the game where they are required to complete a mission before using up the three lives they’ve been assigned.
The movie takes its time setting up its rules and, truth be told, it sags during this initial section, as well as during its third act. The most inspired element is that the teens assume the identities of their avatars once they enter the video arena. Dwayne Johnson is a suddenly muscle-bound Spencer, Kevin Hart is the ironically diminutive Fridge, Karen Gillan is the butt-kicking Martha and Jack Black is the suddenly middle-aged fat guy Bethany.
Johnson, Gillan and Black do a marvelous job of emulating their young counterparts, taking care to replicate the cadence of their speech, the way they move and the impulsivity they would exhibit due to the massive changes they undergo. Seeing Johnson deal with teen insecurity or Gillan express wonder at her newfound fighting abilities are inspired moments, as is Black’s looks of horror when teen dream Bethany realizes she looks like her father. These moments and many more from the trio throughout the film provide the necessary jolts that keep this exercise moving. As for Hart, he makes little effort to project the sort of frustration Fridge must experience once he finds himself trapped in a much smaller body. The actor approaches this role as he does all others, giving us once more the loud, angry man his persona based on.
It comes as no surprise that the teens gain a great deal of confidence during their adventure that has a profound effect on them once they return home. It’s pretty standard stuff as far as its theme and message is concerned, yet Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle proves to be an entertaining enough diversion to adequately fill a couple of hours during the holiday season.