There was a time when my taste in movies was rather immature. Around 1995, I became more serious about movies after getting exposed to the works of Alfred Hitchcock, but I also enjoyed some silly Hollywood blockbuster films such as “Independence Day” (1996) and “Starship Troopers” (1997), and I will not deny that I watched those movies more than once at local movie theaters, though I have no particular desire to revisit them as a grown-up with a more, uh, sophisticated taste in movies.
“Jumanji” (1995) was one of such movies, so I did not expect much when I watched the trailer of its sequel “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle”, but, to my delight, it turns out to be more entertaining than I expected. While injecting a number of good ideas into its original premise, the movie provides us solid entertainment as bouncing one expected narrative point to another along with its main characters, and it maintains well its sense of fun while never overlooking what is being at stake for its main characters.
In the beginning, the movie opens with that last shot of the previous film. That mysterious board game, named Jumanji, is found by someone again, but it does not draw much attention because board games become too old-fashioned for kids, so it is eventually transformed into a video game card, which instantly intrigues the teenage son of the guy who found it.
After indirectly showing what happens right after that boy begins the game, the movie promptly flashes forward to 20 years later and then introduces its four different main characters one by one: Spencer (Alex Wolff), Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain), Bethany (Madison Iseman), and Martha (Morgan Turner). While Spencer is your average nerdy teenager, Fridge is your typical high school jock, and he has depended on Spencer a lot for getting good grades for being allowed to play in the school football team. While Bethany is one of the most popular girls in the school, Martha is a quintessential loner who does not get along well with others, and she is certainly not someone to draw the attention of a self-absorbed girl like Bethany.
The early part of the movie is about how these four teenagers happen to be punished together in a way reminiscent of “The Breakfast Club” (1985). While Spencer and Fridge are caught after Spencer writes an essay instead of Fridge, Bethany is sent to the principal’s office for insolently using her smartphone during a class test, and Martha is also sent there after defiantly refusing to participate in her physical education class. They all get detention, and the principal instructs them to work together in a basement room filled with many things including stacks of old magazines.
In the basement room, they find that video game in question, and they are immediately sucked into the game once they choose each own’s game avatar, and they are shocked to find themselves transformed into their respective game avatars. Spencer is changed into a hulking, muscle-bound adventurer named Dr. Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson), Fridge is turned into Dr. Bravestone’s meek sidekick Franklin “Mouse” Finbar (Kevin Hart), Martha is changed into a sexy female fighter named Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan), and Bethany is turned into, to her horror, a guy named Professor Sheldon “Shelly” Obero (Jack Black).
While trying to get accustomed to their changed status, they gradually get to know the rules of the game. There is a perilous mission they must accomplish for finishing the game and then getting out of it, and each of them has each own ability which may be useful during the following game stages, which are full of dangers including various kinds of lethal animals and an aggressive gang led by Van Pelt (Bobby Cannavale), who is the big bad guy of the game as explained by one of functional game characters in the film.
The movie keeps things rolling as they move from one game stage to another, and director/co-writer Jake Kasdan, who is the son of Lawrence Kasdan and previously made “Orange County” (2002) and “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story” (2007), balances his movie well between comedy and action. While the movie often becomes a bit too intense, its well-made action sequences are always accompanied with lighthearted spirit, and we are frequently amused even during its most frantic moments. The movie is also peppered with numerous comic touches, and I particularly like the one associated with Finbar’s certain weakness, which turns out to be quite more serious than you may think.
The four main performers of the movie have lots of fun with their respective characters, and each of them has each own moment to shine in the film. While Dwayne Johnson, whose comic talent I have come to appreciate more and more during recent years, deftly goes back and forth between comedy and action, Kevin Hart, whose irrepressible manic comic persona has become sort of endearing to me, has several uproarious moments which will draw some chuckles from you. In case of Jack Black, he gives us wry comic scenes as his character finds himself (or herself, shall we say) attracted to a certain substantial male character played by Nick Jonas, and Karen Gillan is quite funny when her character clumsily tries to be a decoy to distract a couple of goons at one point.
In conclusion, “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” is definitely an improvement over the 1995 film, and I had a lot of good laughs along with the audiences around me when I watched it at last night. Yes, this is indeed one of those typical Hollywood blockbuster products, but it is packed with spirit and humor at least, and I do not regret spending 2 hours on it.