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Recently, I have been getting more critical about how action and dumb fun are being handled in films. After a slew of disappointing or rather mediocre films have been released in 2018 that I listed in my Upgrade review, it seems like films these days are afraid of being simple entertainment. There is nothing wrong with being as good as you can be with certain stories and film genres. You don’t need to try to be more than what you are, which dooms most of these types of films. Films like Game Night don’t need to be any more complex than to simply focus on good writing, character dynamics, and good jokes. The same goes with today’s review of Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, which was directed by Jake Kasdan, is one of 2017’s biggest surprises, and easily one of the best films that are aware of what they are and take advantage of it.
The story revolves around four teenagers. A nerdy student named Spencer, played by Alex Wolff, a popular girl named Bethany, played by Madison Iseman, a jock named Anthony, played by Ser’Darius Blain, and a shy introvert named Martha, played by Morgan Turner. After getting into trouble at their school for different reasons, they are tasked with cleaning up a room full of random stuff as punishment. As they clean up, Spencer finds an old video game console with a game called Jumanji in it. He offers to play a quick game with everyone before getting back to work, only to be sucked into the game console. Not only that, but they end up as the characters they selected. This means that Spencer turns into Dr. Smolder Bravestone, played by Dwayne Johnson, Bethany turns into Professor Shelly Oberon, played by Jack Black, Anthony turns into Franklin “Mouse” Finbar, played by Kevin Hart, and Martha turns into Ruby Roundhouse, played by Karen Gillan. They are then tasked by an NPC to get the heart of Jumanji back to its rightful place, and avoid the evil hands of Russel Van Pelt, played by Bobby Cannavale. Along the way, they will have to face challenges, wild animals, and an encounter with a character named Jefferson McDonough, who is played by Nick Jonas, who was a teen from an earlier time of playing this game. Can they survive and not die in the game?
So, what works about Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle? Well, for one, like I said above, it knows and is aware of what kind of movie it is. Sure, it has its commentary areas of the problem with judging people on face value, but for the most part, Welcome to the Jungle is a well-written, action-packed, and hugely entertaining action adventure flick. Since it takes place in a video game world, which I think is a clever and creative way to update the Jumanji concept, they take full advantage of having outlandish chase sequences, over-the-top hand-to-hand combat, and creative challenges that move the story forward, and develop everyone as characters. This is easily some of the most fun action that I have seen from a film this decade that wasn’t something like the Mission Impossible films.
The other major highlight of the film is the cast they have for the video game avatars. This was going to be challenging, because you need the right actors to portray their teen counterparts, and you couldn’t have gotten a better cast than the four leads. Dwayne Johnson has easily become of the surprise actors of this decade, because he seems to know exactly how to approach his characters, and he’s usually given the right amount of material to work off of to make him easily one of the best things about the film. I think everyone got worried with how Kevin Hart was going to be in the film, and his recent controversy not withstanding (he didn’t handle the apology well at all), this is probably his best performance and my favorite performance of his outside of The Secret Life of Pets. It shows with good directing and an actual script, comedic actors can be good. Jack Black was also another curious addition, because you would think him having to portray the bratty popular girl would run itself to death, but Jack Black also turns into another huge highlight of the movie with comedy that reminds me why I love Jack Black as an actor. Karen Gillan does a great job being this introverted butt-kicking parody of Lara Croft, who, like many have said, is a much better Lara Croft than the other Tomb Raider films. Then again, when you have the same actress that plays Nebula in the Marvel films, why should anyone be surprised that she is just awesome? Even some of the more minor roles like Rhys Darby, who plays a literal non-playable video game character brings so much personality to the performance. Bobby Cannavale is just hilarious as the villain. He’s really one-dimensional, but you can tell he has so much fun playing this overly evil villain that lets bugs crawl in and out of his body. I think if you can’t have fun with a literal over-the-top villain, then you can’t be a good actor.
Now, let’s talk about the big elephant in the room. I know many people do not like this movie because they love the original film from the 90s, and think this movie dumps all over the legacy of the first film. I mean, it really doesn’t. Plus, have people seen the first Jumanji film? It’s a decent 90s family film with the only noteworthy thing is that it’s fondly remembered, because of Robin Williams in it. It’s not even his best movie role. Like, I get childhood nostalgia can be one heck of a drug, but nostalgia also hides a lot of issues films from back in the day had. I have no personal connection to it, because I saw the film years later. It has shoddy effects, a clunky pacing to the story, and it’s really not as good as people remember it to be. If you love it, that’s perfectly fine. Don’t let my non-connection to it ruin it for you. You watch what you like, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise to stop watching it. With all that said, did this need to be a Jumanji sequel? That’s really the biggest problem here. Sony could have had a great new franchise, but they didn’t know if people would go see it unless it was connected to something nostalgic. Maybe this was the original intention, but at the same time, you could take the Jumanji elements out of the film, and you would still get a great action film that’s highly entertaining, and does a solid job making fun of video games. Now, with a sequel coming ahead, what are they going to do? They can’t go into the jungle again, because we already saw that? Will Jumanji shape into a different kind of video game genre? Will it be like a Zathura-style thing where it goes from jungles to outer space? That’s the kind of struggle the new film will be having to solve.
Despite some minor elements, and the fact that Sony used the license for nostalgic reasons, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is frankly, one of the most fun and rewatchable films I have seen in a while. It has good writing, good acting, fun action, great jokes, and is one of the best surprises of the year. I hope they make a sequel that’s just as good as this one. Welcome to the Jungle was a great time that I wouldn’t mind saying Play it Again!