Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle
Let’s face it: pleasing as it may be to watch a nostalgic favorite be either updated or given fresh new life, it all boils down to how well-treated these properties are when that happens. One wrong move, and they could easily cause a great disservice to the properties being manhandled for the revitalization stages. Anyone who has seen many of the Disney live-action remakes, for instance, will tell you the bad ones from the good ones.
But one such revitalization I, and many others, never suspected to be one of the good ones was the Jumanji sequels, starting with this film, Welcome to the Jungle.
Once again taking place in Brantford, NH, the story centered this time on four high school students, all of whom went into detention for various reasons: Spencer Gilpin, the ever-ready A-student, and Anthony’ Fridge’ Johnson, the football athlete, were both sent to detention because Fridge asked Spencer to do his homework so he can try out for football. Bethany Walker, the social media-obsessed pretty girl, was sent into detention for wasting time indulging herself in social media updates. In the middle of a quiz, no less. And Martha Kaply, the anti-social, ordinary girl, was sent into detention for vocally questioning the educational legitimacy of P.E. and arguing with the teacher about it.
As the principal asked them to de-staple every outdated magazine in the basement, they discovered a video game console and a game called Jumanji. With nothing better to do, they all decided one by one to play it together. However, after they each selected their characters, they suddenly got sucked into the game and into the jungle of Jumanji itself, much like Alan Parrish in the last movie. However, in their case, they all became the game characters that they chose, which, cleverly enough, embodied the exact opposite of what the four kids were in real life.
Unlike Spencer, who’s all brain, his avatar, Dr. Xander ‘Smolder’ Bravestone, played by Dwayne Johnson, was all brawn.
Unlike Fridge, who’s physically built, his avatar, Franklin ’Mouse’ Finbar, played by Kevin Hart, was physically scrawny.
Unlike Martha, who’s shy and ordinary, her avatar, Ruby Roundhouse, played by Karen Gillan, was fearless and beautiful, if also show-offy.
And unlike Bethany, who looked and acted like she’s the beauty pageant queen of high school, her avatar, Sheldon ’Shelly’ Oberon, played by Jack Black, was... Well, the last person she ever wanted or even imagined to be: “an overweight, middle-aged man,” as she described him.
Despite being confused about being stuck in the game, the four main characters nonetheless ventured forth to fight off intruders, evade ruthless animals, and most of all, reclaim an emerald called the Jaguar’s Eye and put it back in the Jaguar Shrine.
I will start by saying this: the first time I saw the trailer for this movie, I was flabbergasted by the idea of this movie. The idea of a comedic take on Jumanji felt way out of line compared to how the original Jumanji, both the book and the Robin Williams movie, functioned. What was especially not helping was how the events would’ve played out: a bunch of kids discovered a video game called Jumanji, and just as they got started in playing it, they got sucked into the world of Jumanji itself, so now they had to use their wit and knowhow to win the game and make it back into the real world. So, I made a comment about that on Facebook, saying, and I quote:
Did anyone else feel like they may have gotten more “comedic version of ‘Tron in Africa’” vibes than they did “Jumanji” vibes?
Simply put, I was uncomfortable with the direction this movie decided to take the Jumanji image.
After all, while not perfect, the first film still nailed down the Jumanji formula the best way it knew how. And Robin Williams, for all his promoted imagery with this movie, was able to hold it all together. And it all added up to an uneven but still exciting, thrilling, and suspenseful family adventure film. This, on the other hand, looked more like it was meant to cash in on a nostalgic favorite, like many other franchise films were doing at the time. So, I took whatever potential it may have had with a pinch of salt.
And apparently, it wasn’t just me. A lot of other people online expressed as much skepticism about the idea as I did. So, I just stayed tuned and got set to see the movie bomb. But as soon as I caught some of the reviews published about it, and when I finally saw it in theaters with my brother...
Boy, could we not have been proven more wrong.
One of the first reasons for this was because, to begin with, for all its unoriginality concerning getting trapped inside a video game software, it actually took audiences into the world of Jumanji. This was unlike the last film, where we, the audience, were only told about it through past experiences and the wildlife leaping forth from the game. Jumanji, the jungle, was vast, lush, and expansive with a myriad of eclectic, wild beasts who lived there, including rhinos, elephants, hippos, and jaguars. It even took the time to introduce the humans who dwelled there, too, like Russel Van Pelt, who’s much different from Jonathan Hyde’s Van Pelt, and Nigel, who acted as the game guide but was also one of the pivotal characters in the “plot,” if that’s what it’s supposed to be, of the game. There was even a village of Jumanji natives there, which acted and felt like an authentic village, complete with a marketplace. This opened up many possibilities of what the world of Jumanji was like and how both the communities and wildlife of Jumanji functioned within the game.
I should also mention the visual effects here because they have improved when comparing them to those of the first film. The animals of Jumanji all felt real, and though some of them gave off more blatant CGI expressions from time to time, I still got the impression that they were there, just like how all the players felt like they were dealing with them up close and personal. Whenever the effects applied to them, even the settings helped Jumanji look as massive, densely populated, and exotic as we’d expect any African-esque jungle to look like.
You remember how I thought Van Pelt in the first film felt at times like the game personified as if he had some authority in the jungle? Well, I might not have been far off because here, he was so blind with a hunger for the power of the Jaguar’s Eye that he stole it from the Jaguar Shrine, and him claiming it gave him complete control over all the Jumanji fauna.
At one point, I even remembered reading that Van Pelt, when putting his game functions into focus, may have potentially been different depending on the people playing the game. Van Pelt might have represented whatever pertained to the psyches of the players dealing with him. That might make a ton of sense since this Van Pelt felt far more ruthless and power-hungry than the Van Pelt of the first film.
Another thing I liked about Jumanji in this movie was that it was still the same Jumanji that we all knew and loved from the first film, right down to being first introduced as a board game. When the movie began, it started in 1996, the year after the first Jumanji came out, and it was lying on beachy sands when a passerby jogger noticed it and brought it home for his son, who quickly dismissed it feeling like board games were old-school.
Then, when this boy least expected it, the board game transformed into a video game cartridge, which seemed more up his alley. Thus, when he started to experiment with this new version of Jumanji, his deadly affairs within its world had begun.
In addition to tying into the game’s mysterious omnipotent capabilities, this particular detail also felt in sync with the mythology of Chris Van Allsburg’s storytelling. Anyone who has read the original Zathura may remember that it started with the protagonists, Danny and Walter, finding the game of Jumanji and bringing it home with them. First, however, they dismissed it, feeling like jungle games were not their thing. Then, the game transformed itself into the space-themed board game Zathura, which this time caught their interest. The same idea was used with Jumanji here, except instead of its entire identity, all the game changed about itself was its game functions.
And another thing, you notice how the end of the first movie ended with the board game on a (possibly foreign) beach, whereas this movie began with the same board game stuck in a different beach, one that happened to be close to Brantford? I’m getting a sneaky suspicion, the more I think about it, that the board game was sent away after someone from that other side of the world was unfortunate enough to have played the board game next. At this point, anything’s possible.
Of course, one particular detail that caught my fancy was how much Jumanji looked like a vast, wild jungle, brimming helter-skelter with wildlife of all kinds. In the first film, Alan Parrish, who lived there for a good portion of his life, described his experiences as if Jumanji was an overgrown hellhole. Here, Jumanji didn’t look half as dangerous as it was made out to be. Can the jungle change its outward appearances depending on the players, too, or was Alan just not as up to the challenges that came with Jumanji as the other players were? Hard to say.
Speaking of the players, let’s talk about the four main characters.
At first glance, Spencer, Fridge, Bethany, and Martha could easily have been your average high school kid just trying to fit in and be seen as normal. But within the first ten minutes of each of their screen time, they each established different facets about them that lent them further uniqueness and helped them jibe alongside each other very well. And by the time they went into detention, they engaged in shades of occasional bickering and momentary connections, making this carry some Breakfast Club vibes to it.
That wasn’t exploited for long, of course, because then they had to deal with being not only in the video game and the jungle of Jumanji but, more surprisingly, in the bodies of the otherwise adult game characters they each picked.
Once this started to settle in its resting place, it led to plenty of fascinating revelations among the characters and even a steady stream of good humor from them.
That’s right. Unlike the first film, which was severe and thrilling, this new iteration of Jumanji felt more fun, lively, and even funny. I think part of it came from the main characters’ reactions to becoming the avatars they chose and what strengths – and weaknesses – they gained through them. Spencer was utterly dumbfounded by having muscles and the capacity to smolder in a cool way. Martha was taken aback by the um, revealing outfit of her avatar. Fridge always complained about the handicaps of his avatar, and Bethany was completely thunderstruck by who her avatar really was, in addition to going through some slight periods of phone withdrawal.
But wait, it gets funnier. When Fridge was wrapping his head around the idea of becoming someone as physically pathetic as Mouse, he lamented how he was nothing more than the human storage facility for weapons, and even how his weaknesses included speed, strength, and, of all things, cake. In Martha’s case, there was one scene where, after she and Bethany started to be on more friendly terms, she started to get tips from Bethany on how to be the foxy woman who always wooed men with her sexy walk, hair whipping, and alluring moves. This was all so Martha can distract some guards while the others went to try to hijack a vehicle for their expedition. But when Martha finally put it into practice... let’s just say she looked less like she was into it and more like she was intoxicated. And most of all, at one point in the movie, Bethany begrudgingly admitted that she needed to go number one after hearing Fridge say he intended on doing that. And that’s just what she did: she was given instructions by Fridge, as well as by Spencer, on how to pee through male genitalia, leading to her commenting that doing it this way was like using a handle to do your job.
And let’s not forget that Spencer and Martha even got a chance to engage in adult activities through their adult avatars, such as drinking margaritas and kissing in a passionate manner. From one angle, those occurred when these two started to acknowledge each other’s feelings, so they added to their engagingly fiery passion beginning to burn through. From another angle, they quickly spat out the too-strong margaritas since they may never have taste-tested alcohol before, and the smooching on their first try was way off. Since they were still teenagers in high school, they only added to the humor surrounding them in equal measure.
Needless to say, those were all just priceless.
Of course, none of this would have been as effective if it wasn’t for the ensemble work of Dwayne Johnson, Karen Gillan, Kevin Hart, and Jack Black, all of whom were marvelous. Not only did each actor perfectly portray the avatars of the game down to their likenesses, but they also did an excellent job of meshing their personalities together with those of the players who selected them.
The way they acted and spoke like the high school kids we saw at the beginning of the movie might have contributed to the funny scenarios that came about from them, both physically and characteristically. And even in scenes when they were something other than funny, they all expressed an outstanding level of camaraderie that called us back to the relationships the characters had or were starting to have back in their regular high school selves. And this lingered with them all throughout the movie.
Which leads us to the biggest thing this movie got right compared to the first film: unlike that film, where the characterizations of Alan Parrish and Sarah Whittle outweighed those of Judy and Peter Shepherd, the characterizations of Spencer, Fridge, Bethany, and Martha were diverse, quirky, charming, engaging, and balanced each other out just right. Watching them all come to grips with their newfound strengths and weaknesses they got through their avatars, besides being a recipe for comedy, also allowed them to engage outside of their comfort zones to do or be something they never anticipated before. And it helped them grow as characters and as capable, understanding human beings thanks to the weirdness that came with the wildness of Jumanji.
Thankfully, however, for all its comedic showmanship, Welcome to the Jungle was not without its hefty dosage of suspense. Like I said, its interpretation of Van Pelt was more unorderly than that of the first film, and whenever he sent his henchmen, including the enslaved animals, off to investigate the whereabouts and knowhow of the four main characters, they would have just left you biting your nails to see how and if the players would’ve been able to evade their persuasions. And when the main characters did engage in combat with them, it led to some incredible action scenes and plenty of thrilling scenarios.
Come to think of it, here’s one other thing that’s unique to the avatars: if the players got killed in their avatars, they instantly came back to life to play again. Normally, this would’ve been seen as funny in an exaggerated way, and at first, it was. But the characters discovered that there’s only so long they can last in the game before they died one too many times, in which case, it’d have been game over in more ways than one. They knew how much longer they had left by the three-bar tattoos each of them had on their arms; once they died, one of those bars went away. So, they had to figure out how to maintain the bars they had left as they tried to follow up and finish the game.
And then you have Alex Vreeke; he was the kid who was sucked into the game back in 1996. After that, his house and family ended up subject to rumors from the local townsfolk, who claimed the house was haunted due to Alex’s disappearance.
Meanwhile, Alex came into Jumanji as his avatar, pilot Jefferson “Seaplane” McDonough. He admitted that he attempted to escape the game through aviation twice, but at the cost of two of the three lives he had left. So, because of that, Alex had no choice but to settle in Jumanji for fear of losing his life by giving up his third bar. And as he crossed paths with the high school kids and guided them through the traps of Jumanji, he and Bethany engaged in awkward, accidental physical encounters with one another, which only made Bethany have an even greater crush on him along the way. Not to mention an erection, among other things.
And the next big part about him that I want to mention will lead to major spoilers afoot, so you’ve been warned.
Alex did almost end up dying from a mosquito bite since mosquitoes were his avatar’s weakness. But thankfully, before he did, Bethany quickly managed to give him CPR, resulting in her handing him one of her remaining two life bars before his was up. And by the time the five of them completed the game, Spencer, Martha, Fridge, and Bethany ended up back in the school basement but wondered where Alex went. Before then, his house looked downtrodden, and his father was angry and bitter after his son went missing. But after completing the game, the four kids found his home all spick and span, the father happier than ever before, and of course, Alex himself both grown up and even a father. It turned out he named one of his children Bethany in honor of, and in gratitude to, the person who saved his life. So, in short, if Spencer, Fridge, Bethany, and Martha were the Judy and Peter of this movie, then Alex was clearly Alan Parrish, right down to being rewarded with a do-over in life for completing the game.
Speaking of which, there was a nice little moment in the movie where the main characters discovered a hut that Alex had in the jungle; he said it used to belong to someone else. Then, Fridge found a writing that said, “Alan Parrish was here,” meaning that this hut used to be his in the past. Okay, that was both a lovely, touching tribute to the late Robin Williams and a cute tie-back to the first film.
I honestly don’t know what more I can say about this movie that may not have been said already. Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is awesome, not just as a movie, but more impressively, as a sequel. I don’t care what anyone says; this movie is still a sequel to me. It has too many connections to the first film to be classified as a reboot.
Either way, for all the soft spots I ever had and always will have with the first film, I was impressed with this film. Why? Because what many of us feared would only have left a mark by cashing in on a nostalgic classic, and that’s it, instead set an example on how to take a tried formula to a whole new level and embellish it in every way possible. And it did so with charming characters, surprisingly well-placed humor, terrific casting, impressive action scenes, adequate suspense, and a more implicit method of continuing the story of the first film that felt kind of refreshing.
Better strap on, because not only does Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle play by its own rules, but for my money, it does that the right way.
My Rating: B+
— I feel I need to mention one other detail about Jumanji: according to the original book, Jumanji happened to be the name of a golden city the players had to reach as they played the game. Of course, ever since the first film came out, Jumanji became generally interpreted as the name of the jungle instead. I can’t help but wonder: if the world of Jumanji had the chance to be explored to the max in the movies, would there have ever been a golden city? And would it have been named Jumanji or something else?
— Interestingly enough, this was not the first time an artistic adaptation of Jumanji ever went into the jungle of Jumanji. The first time this happened was, believe it or not, in the animated series. I understood that Judy and Peter continually went into the game and the jungle in the hopes of releasing Alan Parrish from his jungly prison every episode. I know it may not have shared the same continuity as the Jumanji movies, but the artistic expeditions it took the dive into the world of Jumanji before the sequels did is undeniably fascinating.