We always knew it wasn’t over. Back in 1995, Joe Johnston’s Jumanji, starring the late-great Robin Williams, concluded on a beach in France with the deadly, titular board game washed up and still beating its drums. Twenty-two years later and they’re still banging away, in Jake Kasdan’s flawed but fun sequel.
Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle kicks off a year after the close of its predecessor with a jogger stumbling across the game – now beached in America – and later gifting it to his son, Alex (Logan Grove). But ‘who plays board games?’ he says, tossing it aside to return to his nineties-modern console and motorbike game – and here’s the twist. Updating the plot of Chris Van Allsburg’s original story, Jumanji 2 sees the board game evolve into video-game cartridge overnight and promptly suck Alex into the game itself when he, somewhat dim-wittingly, attempts to play it.
Fast forward two decades, in which such video-games date terribly, and we meet high-school typecasts: nerdy Spencer (Alex Wolff), self-obsessed Bethany (Madison Iseman), smart outsider Martha (Morgan Turner) and footballing beefcake Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain). They couldn’t be more like the Breakfast Club if they tried; which they do, with all four winding up in detention to learn some valuable lessons from their teacher: ‘You’ve got one life, you decide how you’re going to spend it’. It is when they too stumble across Jumanji, and proceed to play it, that the quartet find themselves in an Avatar meets Freaky Friday setup within the game. Spencer becomes Dr Smoulder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson), Bethany is Professor Shelly Oberon (Jack Black – Shelly being short for Sheldon), Martha: Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan) and Fridge: Moose Finbar (Kevin Hart). Anyone who knows anything about Johnson, Black, Gillan and Hart will have twigged that there’s body-shape switching at work here and to pleasingly rib-tickling effect that is more fun that the formula has any right to be nowadays.
Indeed, it’s the cast and comedy that save Welcome to the Jungle, with the adult quartet sweetly capturing the mannerisms of their junior counterparts and proving adept at finding charm in crude humour. Even Black, so often grating in roles requiring immaturity, manages to bring innocence and warmth to Bethany’s realisation that she now has male genitalia to deal with. If Hart gets the lion’s share of the gags, Gillan is perhaps the worst served by a script that fails to justify the character’s skimpy costume, objectifies the performance and dumps her with a pathetic so-called ‘weakness’. Venom is the Achilles’ heel of Ruby Roundhouse, according to her in-game character bio; this, as opposed to the rest of them who would, presumably, survive a fatal snake bite…?
An existence in such a contented vacuum of logic is the norm throughout the film, even in spite of characters who seem fixated with continuously repeating the plot to themselves out loud. The central conceit is straightforward enough (‘If you wish to leave the game you must save Jumanji and call out its name’) but finds itself increasingly garbled with rules, twists and conveniences. Come the climax, Johnson’s Fast and Furious learnt ability to motorbike his way up a rocky, jaguar-shaped, mountain is the smallest of the plot holes. Chasms which include a curse-resistant elephant, a randomly omnipresent radio, and prologue that gets almost totally forgotten.
Without Williams, the original Jumanji wouldn’t have had the legacy it’s enjoyed. As such, though it’s probably a stronger film, the sequel doesn’t seem destined to last all that long in the collective psyche of a culture likely to take the impressive CGI for granted.
That said, there’s nostalgic pleasure to be had here, what with the film’s millennial tone and a likability which just about bests half-baked flaws and an overlong runtime.