In 2017, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle was a huge surprise of a picture. It wasn’t just that it was able to go toe-to-toe with Star Wars: The Last Jedi and still hold its own as a big money-maker through the holidays but that it changed it up the formula. 1995’s Jumanji was a ho-hum, slapdash adventure based on the popular book. It had an audience though they were more cult than broad. Welcome to the Jungle changed everything as transforming the mystical board game into a video game. The new format was so strong a sequel was guaranteed. And there’s just enough gas left in its tank for one more level.
A Reason to Return
The biggest hurdle that comes from any sequel is trying to find a reason to place the characters back in peril. Since the previous film, the hour high-schoolers destroyed the Jumanji video game they were once sucked into. They now have their own lives since graduating and are hoping to catch up over the holidays. The only one who is not as enthused to meet up is Spencer. Life has not been kind to him given his relationship to Martha that ended and his lacking job. Remember, Spencer was once in the body of Dwayne Johnson while inside the Jumanji video game. His meekness seems to still be present.
When he gets home, he decides instead to lounge around the house with his aged grandfather (Danny Devito). When dear old grandad tells him life is not going to get any better, that’s all Spencer needs to hear to get back in the game. I mean, come on, you get to be Dwayne Johnson. Sure, you may face certain death, but it’s an unstoppable Johnson that can punch people through walls. But since Spencer’s friends of Martha, Fridge, and Bethany can’t leave him behind, they venture back into the game to save him.
There are a few new tricks thrown into the mix this time around. Thanks to the game being damaged, nobody gets to choose who they play as in the game. Also, they don’t even get to decide if they WANT to play. This is how both Danny Devito and his companion of Danny Glover get sucked in as well. They’re plopped in the bodies of the strong Bravestone (Johnson) and the resourceful Mouse (Kevin Hart). They’re a welcome addition considering they’re not at all familiar with a video game as the returning characters now know all the rules. Or do they?
A big problem with this concept is that it asks a lot of the actors. Though Dwayne Johnson can do a lot, he can’t quite muster a Danny Devito impersonation. Awkwafina, on the other hand, can pull it off perfectly and the swapping function is mercifully included later on. Some actors, however, just can’t pull off the more mature version of these teenagers and fall back on stereotypes. Jack Black, in particular, falls back on the perky high school girl persona that Bethany seems to have left behind. Karen Gillan thankfully doesn’t try to do too many impersonations and fells the most natural.
The story of Jumanji has not changed by its very structure. You know the drill: a treasure is missing, a warlord is killing, and our heroes have to save the day and escape the game. There’s some changing in locations that are at least visually appealing. Easily the most exciting and clever scene involves our heroes trying to make their way across rotating and rickety bridges while chased by wild animals. Meanwhile, the big fortress of the new bad guy is on a snowy mountain with a blimp in tow, feeling more routine than astounding.
What carries the adventure more, of course, are the character arcs. I really dug how the first act sets up the issues that need to be resolved between Spencer and Martha as well as Devito and Glover. These issues carry into the game and keep the great character chemistry flowing. What’s a bit frustrating, however, is that most of these issues seem resolved just before the big action climax. This makes the theatrics of Johnson punching the warlord out a blimp feel somewhat empty. Dazzling, sure, but without as much heart as the rest of the picture.
Even for being little than a minor upgrade, there’s still plenty of fun left in Jumanji for one more level. There’s plenty of brilliant lines of commentary throughout. The cast excels at delivering these gags in the funniest way possible. Even when they can’t quite match the actors they’re channeling, they still perform admirably. It’s another satisfying and silly outing that takes heed of video game mechanics while still becoming its own thing, sometimes breaking the rules. So, yes, it is a movie worth watching Kevin Hart get angry at cake one more time. But for the next film, which Sony is clearly hoping for, more than just a DLC needs to be added.