When Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson was asked how he felt about reprising such a beloved 90’s film, the charismatic action star and highest-paid actor in Hollywood gives a profoundly honest answer: “Embrace the early skepticism.” He goes on to explain what many of us felt, what most of us were indeed a part of when we heard the news a couple years ago that Jumanji, a mere three years after Robin Williams’ death, would be back as Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle.
“For a movie like this that’s really beloved for kids who grew up in the 90s,” Johnson said about his mindset going into Jumanji, “being okay with people’s early skepticism.” The long game worked and our skepticism turned out to be wrong, as Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is a great, fun, family adventure.
I should add my personal context watching the film, as my experience was likely made even better seeing the movie through the eyes of my twin nephews, 10-years old, who knew nothing of the original but were excited for its new iteration. It seemed almost blasphemous to allow them to watch it without having seen the original but time was limited, so I swallowed my arrogant nerd pride. When the main cast arrived, played by Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Jack Black, and Karen Gillan, I caught my first laugh. Not long later is was followed by another, and then another. It wasn’t long before I was catching more jokes than the 10-year olds I was accommodating and I laid my cynicism down like a burden down by the riverside and accepted the obvious, that Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle was freaking funny.
The movie’s premise builds on the familiar original, making this Jumanji more of a sequel than a reboot. Discovered as a board game in the sand, a teenager is mildly curious but not nearly amazed enough to engage with the game’s lure as he sets it on his dresser to go back to playing video games. As he fiddles away on his controller the camera pans in on the board game that, while obviously expressionless, gives the air of lover having to watch their partner make out with someone else right in front of their face. Jumanji is obsolete, and in that moment the game realizes it must evolve to stay alive. Enter the video-game version of Jumanji.
The evolution from board to video game happens off camera, and we are thankfully not shown any CGI-based transformation or offered focus on how it happens. Instead, we are afforded the same suspension of disbelief that allows us to accept a manipulative, conniving game in the first place – it just happens, the game can do whatever it wants, just go with it. And true to its old-school veneer, when Jumanji transforms into a 90’s video game cartridge it carries an appropriately straightforward plot: there’s a bad dude who stole a jewel for power, and it cursed all of Jumanji. Our heroes need to recover the jewel and put it back where it belongs to restore balance to Jumanji and be returned to the real world.
The result is a team of 4 unlikely students, brought together by detention, who will find themselves and learn to appreciate each other through their adventure. The theme of Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle can be best summarized as unlikely friendships, the type deeper than high school superficialities that we all eventually abandon. Jumanji becomes their gateway to that blessed abandonment through their avatars: Dr. Smolder Bravestone as Dwayne Johnson playing an unconfident nerd in a hero’s body, Franklin “Mouse” Finbar as Kevin Hart playing a football star in a compact, un-athletic body, Ruby Roundhouse as Karen Gillan playing a shy outcast in a badass bombshell’s body, and Professor Sheldon “Shelly” Oberon as Jack Black just downright stealing the show as the popular and self-absorbed teenage “hot girl.” Teaching Ruby how to flirt and “sparkle like an anime character,” along with her perpetual astonishment at how crazy penises are, Jack Black’s performance is perhaps the biggest surprise of a film that has many – not in terms of plot, but the sheer volume of humor. There are a lot of jokes crammed into the film’s 119-minute runtime, and they come often.
Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is straightforward and leaves the onus on comedy to carry its weight, and is one-part homage, one-part retelling to a generation for whom it is indeed original. I, for one, went from skeptical cynic to enthusiastically happy for the opportunity to pass it on to those two little nephews who were laughing as hard as I was, who said after the film that they’d give it “50 billion stars” and “20 thumbs up.”
“The hardest thing was trying to figure out cool ways to make it really cool, and exciting, and respectful in these days with today’s audiences. So yes, making sure we take care of the 90s babies who love the movie, but today’s audiences too, and today’s kids – the idea of creating a Jumanji and showing it a whole new generation was the hardest thing to do.” Well, sir, kudos to you for such a success, because Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle thrilled me, a kid who grew up in the 90s, and my 10-year old twin nephews who are growing up as we speak. In a time of incessantly bad and loveless reboots, from Transformers to Death Note, it’s wonderful to experience an old story told with humor and respect, and strikes some of the feelings you thought were thought were left behind. I never expected it, but Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is indeed an homage that will carry on, shallow money grab or not.