Is it me or is Dwayne Johnson just really, really likeable? From starring in kids’ movies Tooth Fairy and The Game Plan and as a formidable warrior in The Scorpion King, to amusing roles in adult comedies like Get Smart and Baywatch, to portraying quite literally, solid and stand up guys like Hobbs in the Fast and Furious franchise and Hercules. The actor never fails to deliver an entertaining and likeable performance since making the smooth transition from ‘The Rock’ in WWF wrestling to Hollywood blockbusters, and Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is no exception.
Johnson plays Spencer, but it isn’t exactly the kind of role you’d associate with The Rock, who plays a nerdy, allergy-struck type with a passion for video-games. It’s hardly a miscast though, as Johnson is playing a transformed version of high school student Spencer, who’s ‘real-life’ self is played by Alex Wolff. I say, ‘transformed’ because Spencer, along with self-absorbed, selfie and smartphone-obsessed Bethany (Madison Iseman), loner Martha (Morgan Turner) and typical ‘jock’ Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain) all get physically drawn into an old and mysterious jungle adventure video game called Jumanji, after discovering it whilst serving detention together.
Assuming the bodies of the video game avatars their real selves chose, Spencer becomes macho explorer Dr. Smolder Bravestone and Bethany turns into overweight, middle-aged male cartographer Professor Sheldon “Shelly” Oberon (Jack Black). Meanwhile, shy and withdrawn Martha inhabits the body of attractive and athletic martial art pro Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan), and Fridge comically loses two feet of height to assume the identity of zoologist and side-kick to Dr. Bravestone, Franklin ‘Mouse’ Finbar (Kevin Hart) – a hilarious far cry from his ‘real-world’ counterpart.
The four starkly different teenagers must survive the game brimming with jungle horrors and dangers in order to escape it, with each reluctant player having three lives, a particular skillset and certain strengths and weaknesses. To return home, the teenagers must thwart the game’s villain, Van Pelt (Bobby Cannavale) who’s plan to get his hands on an emerald jewel known as the ‘Jaguar’s Eye’ would allow him to unlock the power to control all of Jumanji’s jungle creatures, and return it to the huge Jaguar monument deep within the heart of the jungle. A piece of cake, right? You’d assume so, but one of the weaknesses for Mouse / Fridge happens to be cake itself.
Jokes and gags were never going to be in short supply when Jack Black and Kevin Hart starred in the same movie and indeed, with former Central Intelligence co-stars Hart and Johnson reuniting for Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, the film was destined to be a laugh-out-loud adventure from the beginning. Although the script does rather over-rely on the oh-so-typical stereotypes of American high school – the jock, popular girl, the nerd etc, the comedy that makes every scene in Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle sparkle would most certainly have made the late comedic genius Robin Williams, star of the first 1995 Jumanji film, proud. Many feared the opposite would be the case, with concerns that Sony’s official announcement of the new Jumanji film in 2015 was poorly and insensitively timed given that it was barely a year after Robin Williams had passed away. However, the 2017 Jumanji provides an apt tribute to Williams, comedy-wise even if the humour takes on the form of a more modern style to cater for today’s audiences, leaving the eccentric style of off-the-wall humour well honoured to Williams.
Director Jake Kasdan and other creative minds behind the Jumanji sequel were keen to stress that the film wasn’t a reboot of the 1995 instalment, but a continuation of the story. There are marked differences between the two movies, with jungle animals and chaos escaping into the real world in the older film and the main characters spending most of the screen time actually immersed inside the game in the second film. Basically, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle can be appreciated as a standalone film if you haven’t seen the first movie, or as a light-hearted sequel to the 1995 film.
While Hart, Black and Johnson stand out as the comedy heavyweights, Karen Gillan brings the bad-ass with her Ruby Roundhouse character, demonstrating that she too can make a smooth transition from companion on British TV’s beloved Doctor Who to silver screen gems such as Guardians of the Galaxy and Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, just as Johnson made the move from wrestling to blockbuster fame. Gillan trained hard to get into shape for the role, even if she did have the help pulling off Ruby Roundhouse’s impressive high kicks, flips and moves from lookalike stunt doubles, who received rare attention (stunt doubles never seem to get much credit) when Gillan posted a photo of them all side-by-side on Instagram. Jokes about the impracticality of her character’s skimpy outfit in the jungle, which was inspired by Lara Croft’s attire in the Tomb Raider films, win a few smiles.
Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle does grow more and more predictable as the movie progresses, perhaps a factor that was inevitable given the film’s promising premise, yet basic plot. It draws on the traditional themes of teamwork, characters playing to their own unique strengths and embarking on a rather unoriginal journey of self-discovery. If you’re after some festive fun or a post-Christmas / New Year pick-me-up or you were a fan of the first movie though, I’d highly recommend giving Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle a chance, at least to witness the refreshingly funny dynamic between Hart, Johnson and Black.