Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle review
Ghris Van Allsburg’s 1981 children’s book Jumanji spawned a weirdly saleable 1995 movie in which Robin Williams escaped from a board game pursued by rhinos, elephants, monkeys and lions which then ran amok in Brantford, New Hampshire. This “continuation of the story” smartly inverts the premise of the original, welcoming us to the jungle as we follow four young players into the game, where they must meet various next-level challenges to secure their safe passage home. Wholly superior to Joe Johnston’s wildly uneven big-screen predecessor (and indeed to Jon Favreau’s related Van Allsburg adaptation Zathura: A Space Adventure), this crowd-pleasing romp combines boisterous action with coming-of-age comedy, all delivered in a shiny FX-laden package tailor-made for holiday audiences.
Who plays board games?” asks an unsuspecting Brantford teen after opening the recently unearthed Jumanji box, which promptly mutates into a video console plug-in – with transportive results. Years later, nerdy Spencer (Alex Wolff) finds himself in style detention with popular jock Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain), Instagram-addicted queen bee Bethany (Madison Iseman) and studious introvert Martha (Morgan Turner). Advised by their school principal to learn “who you are, and who you want to be”, the misfit quartet start fooling around with “an old-school Nintendo game” which promises thrills for “those who seek to find a way to leave their world behind”. A few ill-informed role-play choices later, the foursome are sucked into the digital vortex, and reborn as alter-ego avatars in the cursed world of Jumanji. Which is where the fun begins…
Wolff’s allergy-prone geek becomes Dwayne Johnson’s bulked-up archaeologist/explorer Dr Smolder Bravestone (“Where’s my hair?”); the previously imposing Fridge turns into Kevin Hart’s diminutive zoologist/weapons-valet Franklin “Moose” Finbar; and Martha acquires dance-fighting skills (“Is that a thing?”) as “killer of men” Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan). Most rewardingly, having chosen “curvy genius” Dr “Shelly” Oberon as her in-game persona, Bethany transforms into Jack Black’s cartographer Sheldon (“I’m an overweight middle-aged man!”) who promptly gets eaten by a hippo, only to return with one less game-life to play.
Body-swap routines have proved catnip for everyone from Steve Martin and Lily Tomlin to John Travolta and Nicolas Cage, but casting physical-comedy maestro Black (who first worked with director Jake Kasdan on 2002’s Orange County) as a teen princess who literally “can’t even” is a masterstroke. Like last year’s anime hit Your Name, this playfully explores gender-change revelations, with Black making the most of cheerfully puerile peeing-with-a-penis gags (“Oh this is so much easier!”) and delivering wisecracks about the sensory elevation of losing one’s phone with deadpan aplomb.
Having hit a career high-note voicing demigod Maui in Disney’s Moana, Dwayne Johnson continues to subvert his monolithic “Rock” persona, providing a solidly likable centre for Kasdan’s somewhat over-cluttered film, relishing the chance to play insecurity for poignant effect. As for Gillan, her post-Doctor Who big-screen career has been a shrewd balancing act between offbeat oddities like Oculus and fantasy-adventure romps such as the Guardians of series. Here, she displays admirable comic skills as the uncomfortably attired Ruby/Martha, who dismisses her Lara Croft-style costume as basically “a bikini”, but discovers her true powers to the reggae-lite sounds of Big Mountain’s Baby, I Love Your Way, a naff Peter Frampton cover which previously featured on the soundtrack of 1994’s Reality Bites.
Considering the chequered past of game-world movies (from the Gerard Butler clunker to the Adam Sandler stinker Pixels and worse), plaudits are due to Kasdan for keeping things sprightly. Potentially clunky riffs about non-player characters, such as Rhys Darby’s expository Nigel (“return the jewel and lift the curse”), are deftly handled, while a recurrent joke about Franklin’s explosive weakness for cake raises more chuckles than expected.
Visually, the Hawaiian locations provide eye-catching backdrops for the effects-heavy action, with thunderous beasts and spiralling helicopters charging and swooping their way through the narrative. Along with a touch of Andy Muschietti’s teen-friendly (this year’s breakout horror hit), nods to The Wizard of Oz abound, from character names (Ruby), to plotlines (a mission to get home), one-liners (“I’ll miss you the most”) and a musical motif that keeps threatening to take us somewhere over the rainbow. It never quite gets there (this is no timeless fantasy classic), but Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is frothy fun, and that will do nicely for now.