Jumanji was not a movie that needed a sequel, and in a way it’s kind of fitting that it didn’t really get one. Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is the sort of soft rework that more often occurs half a dozen entries into a franchise nobody has the money to fully reboot. Usually, throwing out the entire original cast and paying only passing nods to continuity feels like a fresh coat of paint over creeping rust. Here, it feels like a revelation.
The board game from the first movie transforms itself into a video game cartridge to attract the attention of a metalhead teen in the mid-’90s, and sucks him into the game world. Jumping forward 20 years, the game is rediscovered by teens doing detention cleanup in a storage room. These new protagonists are tail-end Millennials struggling in high school: Jewish nerd Spencer (Alex Wolff), bad student/good footballer Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain), introvert Martha (Morgan Turner) and social media addict Bethany (Madison Iseman). None of them are especially likeable, and the setup feels a bit like the beginning of a Final Destination film – the movie bringing cheap heat on the characters so you’re excited to see them die.
Fundamentally, both Jumanjis are horror movies with the edges sanded down for family viewing. Jumanji is a cursed thing. The various characters of both films consistently invoke the curse without understanding the risks, and it’s fun to watch them stumble into the mayhem you were promised in the trailers.
The game doesn’t suck the teens in as soon as it’s powered on; it first has them choose characters from a menu in a portentous display of the characters’ misjudgment. They’re then dissolved into smoke – something younger viewers might find genuinely scary – and reborn inside the game.
There, they take on the forms of the characters they selected. Spencer becomes Dr. Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson), Fridge becomes Franklin “Mouse” Finbar (Kevin Hart), Martha becomes Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan), and Bethany becomes Professor Shelly Oberon (Jack Black). The use of unknowns for the teens and major (or at least upper B-list) stars for the in-game characters will telegraph the movie’s focus to anyone over the age of 12. But Welcome to the Jungle balances its halves adroitly: You spend just enough time with the teens to get to know who they are. That becomes essential to the movie’s best line of humor. This is a video game movie, and the people playing the game have no idea what they’re doing.
The movie establishes their ineptitude upfront: Fridge thought “Mouse” was “Moose” based on the character selection screen’s font, and Bethany thought Shelly was a girl’s name (it turns out to be short for Sheldon). The teens discover their characters’ weaknesses and strengths through pop-up menus, and have to beat the game to escape.
All of this unfolds through adults playing teens playing adults, and the main cast does a great job of selling the humor in the confusion. The Rock gets the kind of role Jeff Goldblum got in Thor: Ragnarok; a chance to play his own image for laughs. Jack Black does a surprisingly good job with the moods of a teenage girl (especially in an unnecessary but better-than-it-sounds scene where she learns what it’s like to pee as a boy.) Fridge is the only character whose in-game form is clearly worse than his real-life self, but Hart does just as good a job with Fridge’s handful of victories as he does with his underlying stream of frustrated bickering. Ruby Roundhouse is a ’90s Strong Female Character in the Lara Croft mold, and Karen Gillan plays Martha-as-Ruby with a kind of full-body stammer, twitching and flailing through situations designed to make her look sexy and cool.
Their enemy – as detailed in a cutscene, one of many opportunities the movie seizes to trot out the odd logic we take for granted in video games – is Van Pelt (Bobby Cannavale), an animal whisperer. Van Pelt is the only character to return (at least in name) from the original Jumanji. There, he was a Great White Hunter played by Jonathan Hyde. It’s almost a shame that Hyde doesn’t get to come back; Van Pelt was the only character in the original movie who could match Robin Williams’ Alan Parish for weird intensity. At the very least, one wishes Cannavale had been given more to do with the revised role than glower.
Van Pelt’s new form is one of many things about the movie that may or may not be worthy of scrutiny. As with Jumanji’s transformation from board game to video game, is this the game’s way of making itself more accessible, and thus luring in new players? But perhaps this is too much analysis for a film where Jack Black excitedly yells “There’s a penis attached to my body right now!”
The plot is episodic, as the characters move from one in-game area to another, but the humor never tails off. When the stock of video game jokes starts to run low, the main cast encounter Alex, whose in-game character Jefferson “Seaplane” McDonough (Nick Jonas) has been stuck at a checkpoint for a long time. He’s cool about it, though, perhaps because his powers include making margaritas.
If we’re stuck in an age of endless sequels, they could stand to be worse than this. The core tenets from the original – kids in peril, a world that traps you until you beat it, glorious and unapologetic surrealism – are rejuvenated here with better CGI and an overall-stronger cast. Is it still sacrilege when the finished product is this good?
This post has been edited to fix the spelling of Lara Craft, and to replace a reference misidentifying Karen Gillan as Felicia Day, because I am a flawed human being.