There are some sequels that are absolutely necessary. There are some sequels that nobody asked for. Then there are the sequels that nobody asked for but turn out to not only be quite enjoyable in their own right but in some ways outshine the original. Such a sequel is Jumanji: Welcome To The Jungle, a film that improves on its predecessor without ever trying to directly imitate it.
In the time since the original film, the mysterious board game Jumanji has transformed itself into a video game cartridge. When it’s discovered by four teenagers and plugged into a console, the game transports them into the world of its game to inhabit avatars very different from their real life persona. The nerdy Spencer becomes the dashing wall-of-muscle Dr. Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson). The alpha jock Anthony becomes the diminutive zoologist Moose Finbar (Kevin Hart). The mousy outsider Martha becomes the scantily-clad “dance fighter” Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan) while pretty and popular Bethany becomes the overweight, middle-aged (and male) Prof. Sheldon Oberon (Jack Black).
The quartet is charged with returning a generically mystical MacGuffin to the temple it was stolen from by generically glowering bad guy Van Pelt (Bobby Cannavale). Along the way there are platforms to jump on, bad guys to fight, and NPCs endlessly repeating their dialogue, of course. To make things a little more interesting, each “player” finds out that they have three lives each, and losing the last one will cause them to die for realz.
There’s a lot to recommend in Welcome To The Jungle, which has only the most tangential connection to its predecessor. The basic plot of the film isn’t any more complex than that of the original; it follows a pretty episodic path, with the game throwing new challenges at the players on a fairly regular schedule. Unlike the original however, which saw the main characters mostly reacting and trying to survive, this quartet here is much more active, each with their own specialties, strengths, and weaknesses. It doesn’t make the film much deeper, but it does give it a distinct momentum and energy that makes it a more exhilarating story.
The cast of characters is where the film distinguishes itself most from the original. Each of the quartet is surprisingly multi-layered, as each one not only embodies specific gaming archetypes but also a humorous body-swap disconnect. It’s a precarious balancing act that works most of the time, although when it doesn’t, it’s almost never the fault of the cast. (Four writers on one script tends is one heck of an unbalanced load.)
The film runs almost entirely on charm and adrenaline, but it seems to have a firmer grasp on that elusive type of energy than the original. Again, props go to the main cast, all of whom are tremendous fun to watch and who seem like they’re enjoying every minute on screen. While none of them rise to the level of Robin Williams, who even in his most automatic was at least mildly transcendent, there isn’t a cast member who turns in a dull or uninteresting performance. Dwayne Johnson is perfectly cast as a smoldering adventurer, Karen Gillan is both perfectly bad-ass and perfectly adorkable, and Kevin Hart is on-brand outrageous (but still mostly funny).
The one who steals every single scene, however, is Jack Black, in one of his most consistently enjoyable roles. Not only is he surprisingly adept at playing a selfie-obsessed millennial queen bee, he manages to wring genuine sympathy and emotion from the character. He even sells the budding romantic tension between him/herself and a friendly guide played with winning subtlety by Nick Jonas. And to the film’s credit, their scenes together never once cross into gay panic jokes.
Where the film tends to falter is in its crew of antagonists, both human and otherwise. Bobby Cannavale is a great villain, to be sure, and since he’s Bobby Cannavale, coasts on a huge amount of bad-boy charisma. But Van Pelt is a weak foil for our heroes, only directly confronting them in the climax, and even then, barely doing anything of note. The obstacles that the game throws at its players are all fairly familiar, as well, from stampeding rhinos to poisonous snakes. While the film occasionally subverts our expectations by having the characters respond in game-breaking ways, it doesn’t make the episodes any less predictable. At least they’re buoyed, however, by visuals that are a vast improvement over the original, whose effects were dated and clunky even by 1995 standards.
Similarly, while the film should be given credit for putting as much focus on the personal journeys of the teenagers trapped inside the avatars as it does to their in-game journey across Jumanji, the opening scenes telegraph the character development to come. When selfie-girl Bethany is chastised for being selfish and narcissistic, you just know that at some point she’ll learn the value of putting others first. The film also isn’t always as metatextual as it probably should be, swinging back and forth between Scott Pilgrim-style self-awareness and action film myopia. This is a film whose fourth wall should most definitely be leaned on more than it is.
All of these are, believe it or not, minor points in the end. The film is simply a blast from start to finish, effortlessly funny, exciting, and charming thanks to a commanding set of performances from its main cast. It’s the kind of infectiously fun energy that exuberantly leaps over plot holes and that never takes itself too seriously. A sequel that outdoes its predecessor in nearly every way, it might have some bugs in the system, but it’s one hell of a fun game to play.
FBOTU Score: 7 out of 10 / B