The formula of Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle sounds like it can't miss. Put some big personalities in a gorgeous setting and have them tell funny jokes and perform a lot of action. When those big personalities are played by stars like Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, and Jack Black, the odds of success are even higher. Jumanji meets those expectations for sure, it just never exceeds them.
Directed by Jake Kasdan (Walk Hard), Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is a modern spin on the classic Chris Van Allsburg book turned 1995 Robin Williams vehicle. Instead of playing a classic board game that brings game creatures into the real world, this time four students stuck in detention plug in an old video game system that turns out to be an updated version of Jumanji (never underestimate that game). It quickly sucks them into a mysterious jungle world and changes each individual into a video game avatar. The skinny Spencer (Alex Wolfe) becomes beefy Dr. Smolder Bravestone (Johnson). Spencer's large, football player friend Fridge (Ser'Darius Blain) becomes the diminutive Moose Finbar (Hart). The popular Bethany (Madison Iseman) becomes the chubby Professor Shelly Oberon (Black), and the shy Martha (Morgan Turner) becomes bombshell Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan).
Right there you can see where much of Jumanji's humour and heart comes from. The skinny kid still lacks confidence even in his new, muscle-bound form. The popular girl learns compassion. Jokes are focused on the young girl becoming the older man, the big guy now being small, the female avatar wearing so few clothes... you get the idea.
All the actors must simultaneously play their original human character, as well as the heightened, exaggerated versions of these stereotypes. And they do so with great gusto. The best scenes in the movie are just the four (or five, once Nick Jonas gets into the mix) actors standing on screen talking. Their chemistry and character dynamics are where the movie shines, and when they're together, it's constantly entertaining; Black, playing a teenage girl fascinated with her new penis, is the MVP.
While that witty banter is the best part of the movie, it's not the most prominent. The focus is on the adventure at hand -- the rag-tag group crossing the jungle on an epic journey while being hunted by an evil villain (Bobby Cannavale). But we've seen jungle adventures like that before. Hell, we've seen some of them with these same actors (Dwayne Johnson did The Rundown, Jack Black did Tropic Thunder). So when the movie is all martial arts, swooping helicopters, or stampeding animals, some of the humour and quips take a back seat. What's left is something much less interesting, an action movie that goes in one ear and out the other.
The adventure isn't entirely bad on its own, though. Because this version of Jumanji is a video game, each character is given three lives. And yes, each one of them can, and does, die a few times. Those moments land with humour but also emotionally resonate as we become more invested in the film. Eventually, the character "deaths" help build to some rather sweet, memorable moments. It's just a shame those moments are mere punctuation marks in a much longer strand of banality.
The cast is great, though, and that's ultimately what makes Jumanji worth watching. No, it's not some life-changing experience, but it doesn't really need to be. No one is watching a Jumanji movie to be dazzled with subtly. They're just hoping for something to forget their troubles for a while - a few laughs, a few surprises. The film certainly delivers all that. It just does so in a way that's not as lasting or impactful as one might've hoped from the follow-up to such a beloved classic.
Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle opens December 26.