(2017) Adventure (Columbia) Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Jack Black, Karen Gillan, Rhys Darby, Bobby Cannavale, Nick Jonas, Alex Wolff, Ser’Darius Blain, Madison Iseman, Morgan Turner, Sean Buxton, Mason Guccione, Marin Hinkle, Tracy Bonner, Najah Jackson, Natasha Charles Parker, Kat Altman, Maribeth Monroe, Missi Pyle. Directed by Jake Kasdan
There’s no doubt about it; there are pitfalls involved when making a sequel to a beloved and iconic family film 22 years after the fact. The original 1996 film Jumanji starring the late and equally beloved Robin Williams was based on a Chris van Allsburg-penned children’s book about a board game that had a bit of magic to it, bringing the jungle world of Jumanji into a small town complete with mischievous monkeys, scary spiders, rampaging herds of animals and a sadistic hunter named Van Pelt.
The sequel is a little bit updated. It starts with a young teen in 1996 being sucked into a mysterious console video game much as Alan Parrish was back in the day. Somehow the console with the videogame still in it made its way to a high school audio-video room which a group of disparate teens on detention have been tasked with cleaning up. The game is discovered and videogame nut Spencer (Wolff) is keen on playing it. Fridge (Blain), the football star in trouble because he’d enlisted Spencer to write a term paper for him reluctantly accedes as does Martha (Turner), a shy nerd and Bethany (Iseman), a Queen Bee of the school.
Of course the four teens are sucked inside the game and re-materialize as the avatars they’ve chosen; Spencer becomes the muscular and heroic Smolder Bravestone (Johnson), Fridge the manic but diminutive zoologist Mouse Finbar (Hart), Martha the sultry martial artist Ruby Roundhouse (Gillan) and most amusing of all, Bethany the middle aged and out-of-shape cartographer Sheldon “Shelly” Oberon (Black). It is the star power of these four that truly makes the film work.
In any case, they are given unique and special powers as well as weaknesses, some of which are amusing – for example, eating cake will make Mouse Finbar explode. Each of the avatars have three lives available; when they use them all up, they are gone from the game permanently and maybe out of real life as well. They are given the mission of retrieving a magic emerald from villainous Van Pelt (Cannavale) – very different than the one in the original – and restoring it into a gigantic panther statue in order to restore balance to the land of Jumanji. Along the way they’ll battle poisonous snakes, voracious hippos, a herd of rampaging rhinos and not-too-bright but vicious henchmen.
One of the big criticisms of the original Jumanji – best articulated by the late, great Roger Ebert – was that the children in the film were often in realistic peril, perhaps much too much for a film aimed at children. Kasdan solves this dilemma by having the young teens morphed into adult avatars which although being in peril throughout can at least say they weren’t children in peril. Parents concerned about this aspect of the original can rest easy.
As I said, the four leads are really the reason to see the movie. Kasdan wisely plays to the strengths of the actors; the rapid-fire delivery of Hart, the easygoing charm of Johnson, Black’s ability to be absolutely uninhibited and Gillan’s lustrous physicality. Fans may recognize her as Nebula in Guardians of the Galaxy but Doctor Who fans may not recognize anything of Amy Pond in Ruby Roundhouse.
The present-day sequences with the actors playing the teens (not all of whom are juveniles – Blain is thirty years old at the time of release – are less compelling but then again how would you expect even veteran young actors like Wolff to compete with some of the biggest stars in the business? I suppose it’s not really fair but then again it is noticeable that the charm drops precipitously during the bookending sequences of pre-game and post-game.
I have to admit that despite the star power of the cast that I didn’t hold very high hopes for this one. I knew that inevitably it would be compared to the 1996 original and I was pretty sure that it would come out getting the short end of the stick but actually that wasn’t the case. In some ways, the more recent version is better than the original – certainly in the CGI and while Williams delivered a terrific performance along with Bonnie Hunt, the fab four of Johnson, Hart, Black and Gillan all were just as good if not better. I was pleasantly surprised by this and it might just end up in our permanent video collection when the time comes. The fact that the film did some marvelous box office numbers and has already had a sequel greenlit just confirms that the movie-going public agrees.
REASONS TO GO: The adult actors are smashing. This is much better than I expected it to be.
REASONS TO STAY: The actors playing the juveniles are pretty meh.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of action violence, some suggestive content and brief mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Johnson and Hart previously starred together in Central Intelligence.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/18/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 76% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Big
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Casting JonBenet