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I was not a fan of the noisy, roiling cacophony of special effects and sound that was Jumanji. Director Joe Johnson seemed to throw everything but the kitchen sink at the screen while Robin Williams whooped and hollered and obvious metaphors about family and fathers and sons occasionally forced their way through the chaos. Jumanji 1995 isn’t a terrible movie, but it just wasn’t my taste.
Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, however, is right in my sweet spot. The newest iteration of Jumanji from director Jake Kasdan and five screenwriters, may not be the best example of classic cinema, but it is a surefire spectacle. A great cast, solid special effects and solid direction of a chaotic story all come together to create a year-end blockbuster good for just about any audience.
Dwayne 'The Rock’ Johnson stars in Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle as Dr. Smolder Bravestone, the videogame avatar of a nerd named Spencer (Alex Wolff). Spencer happened to be in detention when a fellow student and former friend from grade school, Fridge (Ser’Darius Blaine), found an old video game and the two decide to play it. Joining them is popular girl Bethany (Madison Iseman) and outsider Martha (Morgan Turner).
A prologue has shown us that the Jumanji game is capable of evolution. After being given as a gift to Alex (Joe Jonas), sometime in the late nineties, the game somehow turned itself into a video game from a board game and sucked Alex into the game. Now, Spencer and his detention friends are also sucked into the game and, as a group, they must use their avatars to navigate the game and stay alive in Jumanji.
I mentioned that The Rock plays Dr. Smolder Bravestone, Spencer’s avatar. He’s joined in the game by his half-pint sidekick, Mouse Finbar (Kevin Hart), the avatar for the usually quite large, football playing Fridge. Also in the game, Bethany takes on the persona of Sheldon ‘Shelly’ Oberon, an overweight, middle-aged cartographer who could not be further from Bethany’s style. Finally, there is Martha, who is transformed into badass ‘killer of men,’ Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillen).
Director Kasdan does well to get through the preliminaries of the plot of Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle. With good pace, we are thrust into the game where our big name stars step forward and things get really, really fun. Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is filled with great gags playing off the new personas of our characters and while some of the jokes are quite obvious, big man Fridge in little man Kevin Hart, gorgeous Bethany horrified to be inside the body of Jack Black, the ways in which these actors play these predictable gags are somehow still fun just from the power of their charisma.
Jack Black has not been this much fun in a long while. Sure, there are times when his effeminate shtick stretches the bounds of good taste, but for the most part, I loved the way he captured Bethany’s shallow nature and her evolution into a more fully rounded and sympathetic person. Bethany bonds with Joe Jonas’ Alex and the two spark well with each other, especially given the unusual circumstances. Don’t worry though, this subplot doesn’t get weird, just sweet and funny.
There is a reason why Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson remains one of the biggest stars in the world and I am not talking about his massive 6 foot 4 frame. The Rock is just pure charisma at all times. The man radiates likability. Here, playing against type as nerdy Spencer’s avatar, I could not get enough of the ways Johnson toyed with Spencer’s insecurities and then indulged in his new physical capabilities. I must admit, much like the characters of Martha and Bethany, I could not get enough of ‘The Smolder.’
Less strong is Karen Gillen as Ruby Roundhouse. The writers seemed to have stranded Ruby with little more than one good gag: she can dance fight. This being a videogame from the 90s, Ruby kicks butt only when listening to the banal Ace of Base hit from the 90s “Don’t Turn Around.” Points to the movie for the weird music choice, but Gillen is capable of so much more. I will say that the kiss she shares late in the film with one of the other characters is quite a hilarious and awkward botch, good for one of the movies' biggest laughs.
Also struggling is Kevin Hart, who doesn’t do much beyond his usual screeching, fast talking bit. Perhaps it was just the economy of characters, but Hart does the least with using his avatar to explore his real world character. Fridge is the least reflective, least interesting, and least evolved character among the core of Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, and somehow, despite being played by Kevin Hart, he's the least funny character.
Also underdeveloped is the villain of Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle. Bobby Cannavale plays Van Pelt, Dr. Smolder Bravestone’s former partner. Van Pelt sets the game plot in motion by stealing a magical jewel from the eye of a Jaguar statue, plunging Jumanji into the midst of a terrible curse. Van Pelt has the power to control all of the animals in Jumanji, but this bit is rarely used and, indeed, Van Pelt is barely used as little more than a vague threat, a typical Boss Battle at the end of a video game.
I may not have enjoyed the original Jumanji, but Joe Johnston was trying to do something with his villain. Johnston's Van Pelt, played by Jonathan Hyde, was a big game hunter and the idea of him hunting the main characters made him feel like a looming threat. Hyde was in far more of that film than Cannavale is in this sequel, a likely by-product of a star-stuffed main cast.
Problems with the villain aside, I did enjoy the way director Jake Kasdan smartly builds deathly stakes into the Jumanji game. Life and death scenarios familiar to gamers and accessible enough for non-gamers are used to give a sense of danger and the film something at stake, even if it is only by our forceful suspension of disbelief. The stakes are strong, the story has good pace and the characters are fun. It may not be high art, but Jumanji Welcome to the Jungle is fine spectacle.