The line between gaming universes and reality has always been a bit fuzzy, whether it’s the 70’s angst some parents felt towards their children playing D&D and being adversely influenced to more modern video games that make us all raving maniacs. Prior to the introduction of engaging computer and video games, stories that blurred the lines revolved around board games. The imaginative original 1995 film Jumanji revolves around three children who are pulled into the board game’s alternative reality. For Alan Parrish (Robin Williams, in a great performance) it’s a sort of purgatory as he’s trapped for decades in the Jumanji jungle, but for young Judy(Kirsten Dunst) and Peter Shepherd (Bradley Pierce), it’s a weirdly engaging game that spills out into their own world in frankly terrifying ways. The original is rather an intense viewing experience and many children found it rather upsetting at the time.
Zoom forward a couple of decades and we have the fun and imaginative sequel Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle. This time a nerdy boy finds the board game from the original movie buried at the beach, but “Board games? Who plays those anymore?”. The game responds by morphing into a game cartridge that pulls young Alex Vreeke(Nick Jonas) into its world. Decades later it’s four misfit teens who escape the boredom of high school detention by trying an old video game they find. They ‘re promptly pulled into the video game world of Jumanji, having unwittingly chosen specific characters to complete the adventure.
It’s all fun and silly, with lots of snarky humor as nerdy and awkward Spencer (Alex Wolff) is transformed into the fighter and adventurer Doctor Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson), bored jock Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain) turns into the gawky, anxious Franklin “Mouse” Finbar (Kevin Hart), shy, insecure girlnerd Martha (Morgan Turner) turns into the gorgeous, ass-kicking Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan) and, most amusingly, self-absorbed selfie-loving Bethany (Madison Iseman) is transformed into Professor Shelly Oberon (Jack Black).
There are shades of Tron here along with a dose of Scott Pilgrim and a whole lot of homage to the original film. This is a film that travels along predictable paths: After the shock of finding themselves in the jungle world of Jumanji, the four have to figure out what their quest is, how to level up and how to overcome each of the challenges posed by the game world. They only have three lives each and quickly conclude that if they lose all three, they’ll be trapped in the game world forever. Not so good.
This is a film written by gaming nerds, quite possibly with input from D&D fan Dwayne Johnson. At one point when he explains to the others that game host Nigel (Rhys Darby) is an NPC, a “non-player character”, I couldn’t help chuckling, knowing that of all the actors in the film, Johnson is the one who most understood the concept. It’s a really fun movie and though there are tense scenes and challenging obstacles for the characters to overcome, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle never really surprises. It would, however, make a fantastic virtual reality game. In fact, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is a film that’s more about virtual reality than it is about video games, and in that sense serves as a sort of cinematic prequel to next spring’s Ready Player One.
The original Jumanji had great special effects that showed just how fantastic a cross of computer graphics and real footage can end up, but it’s aged poorly and rewatching the 1995 film now just highlights how far visual effects have come. The new movie, by contrast, is beautifully produced, with seamless vistas, realistic creatures and much more. As is the modern trend, it’s likely that none of the animals portrayed in the film were real, but you’d have to go frame-by-frame to confirm that’s the case.
My 13yo daughter and both enjoyed Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle quite a bit and she’s already seen it a second time. Lots of laughs, lots of PG humor from “Bethany” finding out she’s male in the game and that includes being anatomically correct. At no point, however, does the film become crass and it’s a mild PG-13 that I would take any teen or tween to enjoy. Go see it. Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is a solid two hours of escapist entertainment during a crazy holiday season.