On paper, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle had everything going against it. It’s a sequel to what was then a 22-year-old movie. It’s a soft reboot that completely switches the overall tone, features a completely different cast of characters, and makes noticeable changes to the series’ mythology. Even if you argue it’s instead a sequel to Zathura, that’s still a 12-year gap. It’s a videogame movie. All of these are features that tend to both make a movie terrible, and to see a movie bomb. Yet not only did Welcome to the Jungle earn nearly $1 billion, but it kind of deserved to earn that much.
Plans for a sequel to Jumanji began as early as 1999, and the original plan for that sequel sounded a bit wild. It involved the President of the United States buying the Jumanji board game from an antique store in Europe, and bringing it back to the White House to play it with his kids. The president then gets sucked into the game, and the evil Vice President, to be played by Steve Buscemi, took over. A number of potential directors came and went, one of which being Chris Van Allsburg, the writer of the Jumanji book the first movie was based on. That eventually fell through. A completely different sequel would have brought back Robin Williams, but when they couldn’t sign him on, Sony Pictures instead moved on to develop Zathura.
Rumors started circling in July of 2012 that a remake was in development. On August 1 that year, producer Matthew Tolmarch confirmed that they began working on a new Jumanji film. It would be directed by Jake Kasdan, son of Lawrence Kasdan, who wrote The Empire Strikes Back, The Force Awakens and Solo: A Star Wars Story. His brother, Jonathan, co-wrote Solo on that note. In early 2014, they announced that the planned release date would be in December of 2016. Considering Robin Williams died just over a year before that announcement, there was some backlash towards the announcement. Even Bradley Pierce, who played Peter in the original, called the remake “unnecessary and kind of insulting.”
Long story short, the movie takes place in the same fictional town as the original, Brantford, New Hampshire. As with the first movie, this one begins with a bit of a prologue. A teenager receives the Jumanji board game from his father, who found it on a beach during his jog. The teenager wasn’t all that interesting, and preferred to keep playing his PlayStation. The Jumanji game, noticing this, somehow transforms itself into a game system, which the teenager plays. He gets sucked into the game off-screen, the same way that Alan Parrish did in the original movie.
Just like the original, the bulk of the movie takes place over 20 years later. We’re quickly introduced to four teenagers, each of which have serious issues. There’s Spencer (played by Alex Wolff from The Naked Brothers Band TV series), who is very intelligent, but is also afraid of pretty much everything. There’s “Fridge” (played by Ser’Darius Blain), a football player whose friendship with Spencer weakened over the years because of their very different social status. He is facing getting kicked off the team because of his low grades. He has trouble accepting responsibility. Martha, played by Morgan Turner, is a shy, cynical yet intelligent student. Rounding out the teens, you’ve got Bethany (played by Madison Iseman), a popular yet incredibly vain teenager who cares little about other people.
All of these young actors play their parts well, but it’s worth noting that they’re not in the movie all that long. After they find the Jumanji video game system while serving detention together, they all decide to play (the girls hesitant at first), and then they all get sucked into the game. All four of them take on the avatars they chose, which are basically their complete opposites.
Spencer becomes Dr. “Smolder” Bravestone, a brave, muscular explorer. “Fridge” becomes “Mouse” Finbar, a short zoologist and weapons carrier whose weaknesses are “strength”, “speed”, and “cake”. That third one is funny when it comes up. Martha becomes Ruby Roundhouse, a martial arts expert nicknamed in-game as “killer of men”. The funniest of all is Bethany becoming Professor “Shelly” Oberon … played by Jack Black. Yup, the hot vain girl becomes a middle-aged man who specializes in cartography and a couple of other sciences.
The four avatar actors really are the best part of the movie. It’s fun watching Dwayne Johnson pretend to be a teenage boy who’s afraid of everything. Kevin Heart’s role as “Mouse” is quite entertaining, even if he’s basically playing himself. Karen Gillen as Ruby Roundhouse is probably the most normal of the four, but watching her fail hard at flirting when she’s trying to distract two guards is hilarious. Of course the best of all is Jack Black pretending to be a vain teenage girl. He’s so convincing in the role, and it’s often funny without being over-the-top.
Other actors worth mentioning are Nick Jonas as “Seaplane” McDonough, the avatar that the teenager in the prologue became. He shows up much later in the movie, but he’s convincing as both a 90’s kid and a man who’s been trapped in the game for so long, his confidence is shattered and he’s full of regret. Bobby Cannavale plays Van Pelt, a reimagining of the hunter from the first movie. This time, he’s a corrupt archeologist who has some sort of mystical command over the animals in Jumanji, and serves as the main villain. On the one hand, he’s a bit over-the-top with his dark, intimidating attitude. On the other hand, when you consider this movie is at least partly inspired by video games from the 80’s, it’s fitting. And of course there’s Rhys Darby as Nigel, an NPC who acts as a guide for the avatars. He’s entertainingly optimistic and charismatic.
The tone of this movie is very different from both Jumanji and Zathura. It’s mainly a fun action/adventure/comedy, whereas the other movies were fairly dramatic adventure films, one being a pure fantasy, while the other is somewhere between fantasy and science fiction. This movie certainly features fantasy elements, but it’s not as focused on that as the original. Yet despite the very different tone, it works. It still manages to be respectful of the original movie, even directly referencing Alan Parrish spending years inside the game. It suggests that, while the game re-invented itself as a video game, it’s still the same jungle within.
Another aspect this movie has in common with the other two is how the games ultimately affect those involved. In the original, Alan learns to appreciate his family more through his experience. He and Sarah also discover their love for each other, when her bully of a boyfriend previously got in the way. They’re able to save the lives of the kids they play the game with in 1995, using their knowledge of future events. In Zathura, the three kids of the divorced parents learn to appreciate each other better. In this movie, Spencer learns to not be a coward. “Fridge” learns some humility, and to take responsibility for his actions. The two of them also patch up their friendship. Meanwhile, Martha learns to be less shy, and even starts a relationship with Spencer. Bethany learns to be a much better person, and also becomes friends with the other three.
None of this is to say the movie is perfect. With the 90’s kid in particular, some of the references just don’t work right. For example, he references Will Smith’s “Getting’ Jiggy wit It”, even though that song released the year after he got sucked into the game. As much as it’s a nice touch that the teenager’s father finds the game on a beach, the same way that the game finds itself on a beach at the end of the first movie, it’s clear that the kids walking towards the game aren’t speaking English, suggesting the game floated to Europe. Most of the nitpicks you can throw at this movie can be narrowed down to “video game logic”, and that’s probably intentional, but there are some clear continuity issues.
There’s no doubt at this point that Jumanji is sentient to some degree. After all, it transforms itself into a video game after its new owner isn’t all that interested in board games. But there is an interesting debate to be had over whether it’s evil or not. On the one hand, it puts its players in legitimately dangerous situations, with no guarantee of survival. On the other hand, everyone who plays it sees their lives improve one way or another. Well … that’s unconfirmed with the teenager from the start of the movie. Is it actively seeking out people who need the experience? Is it just a co-incidence that everyone ends up being a more complete person after they experience it? These are the kinds of thoughts I get sometimes when it comes to the fiction I consume.
Whatever the case, on paper Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle shouldn’t have worked. It had so much working against it, yet somehow it ended up being very good. It’s a very entertaining movie, yet still features some great dramatic moments. Especially when the characters reach their main moment of growth. Spoiling those moments would ruin them for those who haven’t seen the movie, but Bethany’s moment in particular really stands out.
The movie received generally positive reviews, with a 76% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and an average score of 6.2/10. That’s actually noticeably better than the original performed with critics, but not quite as good of an average score as Zathura. TheWrap called the movie a pleasant surprise, and “a funny family entertainment product that subverts more expectations than It was obligated to”. Rolling Stone gave the movie a mediocre score, but specifically praised Jack Black’s performance “for finding the ‘venerable heart’ of the character.” Welcome to the Jungle ended up earning $962 million, making it the 5th highest earning movie of 2017.
While this is a very different movie from the original Jumanji, it’s still an entertaining movie and it’s worth recommending, both to fans of the original and those looking for a legitimately good video game movie. There have been some good ones since, like Sonic the Hedgehog, Detective Pikachu (which I haven’t seen), and of course Jumanji: The Next Level. That’s next up by the way. I would still argue that the original Jumanji movie is better overall, but this is the most entertaining movie in the franchise, while still containing some great character growth and dramatic moments and being respectful of the original movie’s characters and themes. On paper, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle should have been a disaster in every way, but it’s a good movie.