There was a howl of outrage heard around the world when plans were first announced to make another “Jumanji” film. Up until then, I don’t think anyone had really been aware of in what high esteem the original – albeit fondly thought of – had been held. Turns out the Robin Williams CG-heavy jungle adventure had been an important touchstone in many childhoods. And, if there’s one thing the current cinematic generation don’t take kindly to, it’s somebody destroying their childhood by daring to tamper with something held sacred, especially when it’s Sony doing the nostalgia strip-mining. I mean, why worry when the studio behind “Pixels”, “Ghostbusters” and “The Emoji Movie” are rummaging around in your childhood toy box, right?
The game wants to be played. In 1996, when a teenager dismisses the board game his father found washed up on the beach, Jumanji transforms itself into a video game cartridge. When the boy plays it, he finds himself sucked into the video game and vanishes from the real world. Twenty years later, four high school students in detention are tasked with clearing out the school’s basement. But when they discover an old video game system, they can’t resist giving it a go.
“Jumanji: Welcome To The Jungle” is that rare decades-late sequel which both honours the original’s creativity and imagination (there’s a nice nod to Robin Williams’ character too) and builds upon it, expanding the possibilities of the story. The move to video games is an inspired updating of the central MacGuffin, as is the different direction the narrative takes us. In the original, the tropical terrors of Jumanji were brought into the real world but with this new adventure, we’re taken into the world of the game itself. In gently spoofing video game conventions and character tropes, the film finds a rich seam of comedy and sly commentary to go with the action heroics.
Bobby Cannavale’s central villain is a little one-note and completely underdeveloped but he does what he needs to do, which is provide an opposing force for our heroes to race against. It’s the winning performances from the main cast, though, that really help the movie rise above suspicions of being a soulless cash grab. Dwayne Johnson once again proves how invaluable his easy charm and charisma are to the movies he headlines (obstinate “Fast & Furious” co-stars should take note) but here it’s his gift for comedy and spoofing his action hero persona that really delights. Jack Black and Kevin Hart likewise are great fun as their video game avatars, letting their ‘real’ characters bleed through as they struggle to adapt to jungle life. Karen Gillan furthers her case as a cinematic action hero, kicking butt as a jungle heroine and developing a fantastic chemistry with Johnson.
While it doesn’t pick up the original’s story of familial reconciliation so overtly (nor its glibly humorous take on gun control), but there’s still a message about being your best self and learning what’s important to balance out the high-jinks. While the original may hold a special place in your childhood movie heart, “Jumanji: Welcome To The Jungle” is every bit its equal in the flat-out fantasy fun and action-packed adventure stakes.