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Safe to say opinions are getting increasingly low on Hollywood’s wave of remakes, sequels, reboots and prequels, this year alone sees a plethora hitting cinemas from the genuinely awaited follow-ups (Incredibles 2) to some curious reinventions (Robin Hood), to the downright odd decisions (Mary Poppins Returns). So, it is little surprise that when Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle was announced people were really quite baffled by a remake of the 1995 action/adventure hit, even more so following the all-too-soon death of its much-loved star Robin Williams. However this film is not actually a remake as such, more a quasi-sequel to the original film and despite the predictably acidic comments from some corners of the Internet (quelle suprise), the film is actually a surprisingly big wallop of enjoyment.
By wisely deciding to keep select strands of the original film’s DNA intact and yet mostly going in a whole new direction, this film succeeds in utilising the flipside of the concept and bringing the viewer inside the world of the game as opposed to the vice versa approach taken in the original. The plot initially picks up in 1995 as a runner finds the eponymous board game washed up on the beach, he takes it home to his disinterested son and that night the rules quite literally changes as Jumanji morphs into a video game. Years later a group of high school kids find themselves in detention and on cleaning duty, where they find the Jumanji console and, well, you can guess what happens next…
The young actors portraying the teens do a reasonable job but it’s fair to say to say the film well and truly gets going once these players inhabit their in-game characters and have to deal with the binary oppositions that come with being their avatars…to some great comic effect. Video game culture is constantly and affectionately sent up in a film that gamers will absolutely love, with jokes made at the expense of respawning, impractically skimpy attire for female adventurers (ala Lara Croft) and the limited capabilities of non-playable characters’ limited AI. The jungle setting – and the very wild cinematography by Gyula Pados – and thumping soundtrack by Henry Jackman will also be familiar to many an adventure game fan, as the Uncharted style plot plays out.
Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle unmistakably lacks the poignant heft of Joe Johnston’s first film but it makes up for this with its own glowing comic magnetism. That said, there are still some fond links to the past, with a very nicely played tribute to Robin Williams mid-film that is just one of many nods and winks to the first film and the TV series it inspired. The decisions by the writers work rather well as a whole, not just because of amusing dialogue but because of the core ensemble delivering it. Dwayne Johnson mocks his own macho image in the lead role, while his pairing once again (after the success of Central Intelligence) with Kevin Hart yields strong comic camaraderie onscreen, allowing both actors to bounce jokes off each other. Meanwhile Karen Gillan has a ball in embracing this character archetype and addressing the strengths and flaws in the presentation of such figures. While Jack Black has scene-snatching moments aplenty, as he is the avatar for image-obsessed Bethany (Madison Iseman) and the woman in a man’s body gag works surprisingly well. There are also some fine supporting turns by Nick Jonas and Rhys Darby throughout. Really the biggest letdown with the film is in the shape of Bobby Cannavale’s drab supernatural villain, who is written more like a forgettable end boss than a feared antagonist and when compared to the first film’s Van Pelt Jonathan Hyde, this version is even more unremarkable.
Overall though, despite opting for a different approach, Jumanji fans ought to have an unanticipated good time with this sequel-cum-soft-reboot which sees an enthusiastic main cast embrace their roles in a movie that showcases video game touches (that modernise the story and distance it from being a simple rehash), whilst also having some nice nods to what (and who) came before.