The original Jumanji isn’t the stone cold classic you might remember, but its mix of strangeness and spectacle has allowed it to endure for the twenty one years since its release. Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle isn’t the worst film to be crapped out by Hollywood’s nostalgia machine, but that just means it’ll be forgotten twenty one minutes after the end credits roll.
For those of you who don’t remember/don’t know/don’t care, Jumanji centred around the titular board game, based on old-timey jungle adventures, which would spit out various exotic perils at its players. In this torpid sequel/reboot (the film really can’t decide which it wants to be), Jumanji morphs into a retro video game console in order to attract a modern audience who probably don’t even know what a board game is.
And so a group of four disparate high schoolers (nerd, jock, shy girl, popular girl), while serving detention in the school’s basement, come across the new and improved Jumanji. After choosing their characters, they are each sucked into the console, and their listless, uninspired jungle adventure begins.
One of the most fascinating aspects of the original film was Alan Parish’s time spent trapped in Jumanji’s jungle. Robin Williams’ character survived for twenty six years inside the board game and, through his oblique references, we gather the sense of a darkly fantastical world, a sort of European collective nightmare of Darkest Africa.
In Welcome to the Jungle, we just get a bog standard jungle.
Welcome to the Jungle doesn’t care about the jungle, or even about Jumanji (board game, video game, or fictional jungle hellscape). No, the USP here is trite body swapping. On entering the game, each of our high schoolers finds themselves inhabiting the body of the characters they chose, and of course they’re hilariously mismatched. So the nerd becomes Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s beefcake; the shy girl becomes super hot Karen Gillan; the popular girl turns into pudgy middle-aged Jack Black; and the big jock gets to be diminutive Kevin Hart (lucky him).
Body swap comedies hinge on how well the swapped actors can mimic each other, and in that sense Jack Black is hands down the best thing about Welcome to the Jungle. Black nails the preening mannerisms of a self-obsessed teenage girl while managing to stay on the right side of judgemental, even injecting a little pathos. Johnson and Gillan do a passable job of playing retiring types learning to accept who they are (though Johnson really just plays the same basic character he’s played in every comedy he’s been in). On the other end of the spectrum, Hart is, as always, teeth-gratingly irritating.
There are a handful of comic moments where the film comes alive, especially a scene in which Black’s teen temptress schools Gillan’s wallflower in the art of flirting. The action, on the other hand, is dull and unimaginative. The nightmarish jungle horrors of the original have been replaced with generic mercenary baddies, led by Bobby Cannavale’s Van Pelt, a bewilderingly boring update of the original’s pith helmeted antagonist. At one point a character mentions, in passing, orangutans flying fighter planes, but Welcome to the Jungle is too creatively lazy to actually feature orangutans flying fighter planes. A fact by which I was greatly disappointed, because I would have loved to see orangutans flying fighter planes.
Jumanji‘s board game existed as a malevolent intelligence, teaching kids the value of rules and perseverance with a little wry perversity. This update’s video game is nothing but a thinly disguised plot device to enable three actors who should know better (and Kevin Hart) to bungle in the jungle. Welcome to the Jungle isn’t the worst body swapping action comedy, but I’m in no hurry to be welcomed back.
Oh, and that Guns N’ Roses song plays over the end credits. Because of course it does.