Here, there be SPOILERS!
I have a confession. I was never a fan of the 1995 Jumanji starring Robin Williams, and while it's quite possible I could stand to give it another try to see if my distaste for it has waned over the years, I don't really want to. Old as it is and long ago as it was, I still recall the kids (Kirsten Dunst and... somebody else) being irritating, David Alan Grier ascending to near-Ruby Rod levels of abrasive, and the special effects being just shy of wretched. I have no recollection of how well-executed the story was, and while the late Robin Williams was a national treasure, I think even then I was already starting to burn out on his trademark brand of improvisational mayhem. I know it's a mostly beloved romp, and maybe I was just in a foul mood that year, but I swear all I have left of that movie is a bad taste in my mouth.
Fast forward twenty-two years, where we're clearly at it again, having apparently learned nothing. This only-kinda-sorta sequel to the Joe Johnston movie based on Chris Van Allsburg's original novel brings the eponymous family pasttime into the... late 20th Century, I guess, by updating it from tabletop boardgame to a 16-bit cartridge videogame for a system that never existed. And frankly, the only reason that stands out to me is because Sony has never supported cartridge technology. Truth be told, I kinda need Sony to get over themselves. Their incestuous love of their own brand does more harm in the films they distribute than good. This new story takes place in 2017, yet our main characters, high school teenagers one and all, conspicuously only use Sony smartphones, which is, at very best, difficult to swallow.
But I digress. This newest adventure, unimaginatively titled Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (complete with obnoxious use of 1987 Guns N' Roses' anthem of the same name), is directed by Jake Kasdan (Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story), and follows four disparate stereotypes who've each been given detention for various unremarkable reasons. While cleaning the high school basement as part of their punishment, the kids run afoul of the dusty console and are immediately warped into the world of the game, and if you think this is all starting to sound vaguely familiar, you wouldn't be wrong.
Once inside the game, our four players discover they are each controlling the character avatar they selected, complete with skills, strengths, and weaknesses. Spencer, formerly the awkward nerd and game geek of the group, becomes aircraft carrier-sized adventurer and rogue Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson); Fridge (that's really his name), the resident dumb jock, who lands both himself and Spencer in detention for having him do his homework for him, turns into diminutive zoologist Franklin Finbar (Kevin Hart); vapid, self-obsessed alpha girl Bethany learns she is now middle-aged, overweight cartographer Professor Shelly Oberon (Jack Black); and Martha, whose only crime seems to be that she's kind of a jerk to her gym teacher, finds she is now Ruby Roundhouse, "Killer of Men", a Lara Croft-inspired commando in Daisy Dukes.
In an amusing twist that I kinda wish hadn't been in the trailer, each player becomes the game archetype most diametrically opposed to their real-world personality, which would be a blast and a half if the movie was capable of even a modicum of sincerity. Even for a kids' film, and honestly, that's a hard case to make when you factor in all the penis humor, this thing is embarrassingly inauthentic. Someone should have informed the many, many screenwriters responsible for this that you can't pull a Breakfast Club without your main characters at least feeling believable, like they actually exist. Their dialogue is grating, and their attitudes are hyperbolic, making the whole thing feel less like an adult's attempt at writing kids and just adults who dislike kids writing about that disdain.
Even the moments where the characters look beyond their preconceived, surface notions of one another and realize they've misjudged - Oh my God, I can't even finish typing that. The script is not good. It's so forced. It's so facile and artificial, and, quite frankly, it should never have gotten to the set in the condition it's in. It's frustrating because, at its core, this is a really cool idea for a movie, and it boasts a genuinely great cast. There just sadly isn't anything here for them to work with beyond the superficial. It's hard not to fixate on the film that might have been instead of the blatant brand recognition cash-grab this became.
The kids' primary objective in Jumanji is to return a magical MacGuffin to its place of origin and lift the curse that has befallen the land. In order to do that, they must traverse the jungles, pits, and cliffs of the game world, doing battle with stampeding animals and motorcycle-riding marauders led by the game's boss, a big game hunter-type named Van Pelt (Bobby Cannavale), whose previous contact with the aforementioned MacGuffin device has granted him dominion over the insects and animals. That part's admittedly kinda righteous, but the movie never goes far enough with it.
This is easily the film's biggest flaw. I don't know if it's that it was written by people who've never actually played a videogame, or if it's written by people who hate videogames, but it's one or the other. Or both. I'm willing to concede it may have also been due to budgetary constraints, but at close to $100 million, this thing is woefully unambitious. There are no discernible "levels", only uninteresting places within the jungle populated by various nondescript enemies. The terrain is unoriginal, lacking even rudimentary danger zones like waterfalls and volcanoes. There are no real puzzles to figure out, no mini-bosses, no power-ups, there are precious few wild animals to contend with, which is disappointing since the villain can control them with his mind, the two and a half fight scenes are not terribly well staged or choreographed, the weather is always compliant, and everything takes place in broad daylight. Even the final boss battle is... well, there isn't one, and that's a damn sin. I'm not saying it had to be Contra up in here, but anything would have been better.
If you'd spent $52 on this at Gamestop, you'd have returned it within hours for a full refund and an apology. What a movie like this needs is to be dialed up to 11. There is so much downtime between actual events in this game world and so few challenges of note you begin to understand why the player would need to be sucked into the damn thing to start with. It'd be the only way to get someone to actually play it. In the end, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle just doesn't try hard enough to make itself memorable.
It's not all bad, of course. Dwayne Johnson is as engaging as always, even if it is clear he hasn't had to imagine what it's like to be small and afraid in some time. Kevin Hart is, as usual, playing Kevin Hart, which is funny at times, though not nearly enough for my taste. Karen Gillan is fine, I guess. Only Jack Black is really putting his shoulder into it as teenager Bethany, and I can admit that when you get them all together, it's fairly entertaining. And there is a nice subplot involving Nick Jonas, of all people, that's surprisingly heartfelt. It's probably the only sincere moment in the movie, and when it unfolds, you're kinda left wondering why the whole thing couldn't be that earnest.
If you have kids, I'd say take them to see it, or if you're just a fan of people running around the jungle screaming for an hour and a half, certainly get there. I can't say I'd stand in line for a sequel, unless they'd be willing to get Hideo Kojima or Blizzard Entertainment or someone to serve as technical consultants and advisors on the project. The potential is definitely there. Sorely, this time around, it wasn't worth the tokens to play.
My Rating: 3 out of 5