Back when it was first announced, I couldn’t help but ask the question “did this really need to happen?” I have an affinity for the original ‘Jumanji’ an old-school adventure film with one of my favourite actors of all time, Robin Williams, in an against-type role with fun characters and a great premise. Sure, it’s cheesy and the effects are a little dodgy, but it was a film I grew up with (I was 3 when it came out), and for my money it still holds up to this day as a fun film. ‘Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle’ felt completely unnecessary, unless it could bring something new to the table. I’m happy to report that my initial fears were left unfounded as I had a very good time with ‘Welcome to the Jungle.”
We start with four high school students Spencer (Wolff), Fridge (Blain), Bethany (Iseman), and Martha (Turner) finding themselves in detention for various misdemeanours. They are tasked with de-stapling old magazines to be made safe for recycling in the dark basement of the school when they discover an old games console, not unlike a classic SEGA Megadrive. It has a game already plugged in, so Spencer sets the console up on an old TV and they all agree to play to kill some time instead of doing their detention. The game in the console is, of course, Jumanji, which has metamorphosised into a video game because “who plays board games anymore?”. Such is Jumanji’s wont, the four students get literally sucked into the game and assume new roles based on their character selection. To escape, they must complete the game. Simple.
When ‘Welcome to the Jungle’ works, it really works. Our four proper leads once in the game are clearly having a boatload of fun. Dwayne Johnson is the charismatic leader but with the mind of a nervous, nerdy teen; Kevin Hart is a small, side-kick with the mind of a jock, leader-type; Karen Gillan is a badass martial artist with the mind of a self-conscious, shy teen; and Jack Black is a middle-aged cartography specialist with the mind of a popular, ‘Mean Girls’ teen. All four actors are playing somewhat against type, having to think “what would my teenage character do” in any given situation. It serves both as a functional sequel, and a pleasant coming-of-age story. ‘Welcome to the Jungle’s’ writers manage to balance this very well.
Many of the film’s highlights come from the team bickering and working together. They all have to reluctantly follow Spencer because his character is over-powered beyond belief, which creates division amongst Spencer and Fridge, but they all serve a purpose within the world. Bethany can do things the others can’t which helps them advance further in the game, the same can be said for all four of them. The film does a great job of giving every character agency and a role in the game.
It is worth addressing, too, that given the current crowd of video game film adaptations (most recently the disastrously boring ‘Assassin’s Creed’ adaptation), ‘Welcome to the Jungle’ has stumbled into being arguably the best video game film ever. It has fun with the rules it sets for itself, it makes jokes about game clichés and embraces them, and several scenes felt reminiscent of games I’ve played in the past (‘Far Cry’, the new ‘Tomb Raider’ games).
That said, it does occasionally create new rules on the go in order to write themselves out of a situation (I can’t think of many games that allow you to “share” your lives with another character, for example), and there is the odd internal logic jump that doesn’t really make sense (no game ever forces you to have to die in order to complete a mission), but that is coming from someone who has been gaming for years. They are small nitpicks in the grand scheme of things.
Further, ‘Welcome to the Jungle’ boasts a phenomenally bad villain (Cannavale), who barely even registers as a threat, and is another cause for plot-related concern. Early on, they are forced to watch a cut-scene, standard procedure in gaming, to explain the plot of the game. Later, while our heroes are traversing the jungle, it cuts to show Cannavale plotting his next move. Can our characters see this? Is the game-world alive and changing around them all the time? Again, not huge issues in the bigger picture, but they were certainly issues I raised internally.
All in all, though, ‘Welcome to the Jungle’ is supremely entertaining. The film lives and dies by its four main characters and they are up to the challenge of making it as fun as they can. Karen Gillan and Jack Black are the personal standouts (I never knew the world needed a scene in which Black teaches Gillan how to flirt, but I’m all the happier for it), but all of them are great. It’s a shame about the villain and the plot-holes that show up every so often, but I had a great time watching ‘Welcome to the Jungle,’ the most surprisingly good film of 2017.
Rhys’ Rating: 7.1/10
Director: Jake Kasdan
Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Karen Gillan, Jack Black, Nick Jonas, Alex Wolff, Madison Iseman, Morgan Jeanette Turner, Ser’Darius Blain, Bobby Cannavale