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Does the New Jumanji Sequel Suck?

December 21, 2017

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True confession: Even though I recently wrote an oral history of the original Jumanji for The New York Times, I’m not a huge fan of the movie. I was too old when it came out in 1995 to care about a kiddie comedy starring Robin Williams and a bunch of computer-generated monkeys. More than 20 years later, my expectations were even lower for Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, a sequel of sorts reteaming Dwayne Johnson and Kevin Hart from Central Intelligence, a movie that looked so stupid I didn’t even see it.

Well, surprise, surprise: Welcome to the Jungle doesn’t suck. It’s not exactly good, but it goes down painlessly enough. It bears almost no relationship to the original, except that it’s about a game (this time, it’s a video game) and the characters sometimes speak in rhymes. There’s a passing reference to Alan Parrish, the late Williams’ character, but it’s more of an inside joke than a plot point.

In fact, the film has more in common with The Breakfast Club than Jumanji. A group of disparate high-schoolers — a nerd, a jock, an outcast, and a princess — gets thrown together into detention. (Wait, where’s the rebel, you ask? He shows up later.) They’re magically sucked into the titular game, but instead of jungle creatures like elephants and rhinos storming through their small town, as in the original, they’re transported to an exotic locale where they must complete a mission to return a jewel to a jaguar-shaped rock formation’s eye.

Okay, it sounds lame, but the screenplay finds amusing variations on the idea that each of the teens has chosen an avatar very different from their own personalities: the geek is The Rock; the jock is little Kevin Hart; the outcast is bad-ass babe Karen Gillan; and the princess is Jack Black. Johnson shows new range and vulnerability, and Hart proves once again, as he does in his stand-up act, that he can make unfunny material sound funny through the sheer force of his delivery. Gillan is a smart and sexy revelation (perhaps because I’m not a big Doctor Who guy, and I’ve never seen the Guardians of the Galaxy movies, so I had no idea who she was). And Black gives his most gut-busting performance since the criminally underrated Nacho Libre.

The versatile Bobby Cannavale is wasted as the token villain, and Nick Jonas doesn’t bring much to the table as the fifth member of the Breakfast/Jumanji club, who joins the story in mid-stream. But director Jake Kasdan (reuniting with Black and Colin Hanks, who has a key cameo near the end, from another lost classic, Orange County) keeps the story moving along swiftly and doesn’t let the action overwhelm the comedy.

Will Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle change your life? No. Is it a decent way to kill two hours? Yes. Plus, it gives you a reason not to talk to your relatives over the holidays. That’s a whole different kind of jungle.

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