Super Mario Bros. Mortal Combat. Assassins Creed. When it comes to the genre of “Video Game Movies,” there isn’t much to give you much hope. However, while the video game movie is yet to find its footing, movies about video games fair quite a bit better. Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgram vs. The World and the delightful Wreck-It Ralph are just two examples of how a film can take the fun tropes of a video game, while still telling a fun and heartfelt story. Now, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, the sequel-reboot of a Robin Williams classic 22 years in the making (that frankly, nobody wanted), defies all odds and delivers a delightful action-adventure, video game style romp.
Welcome to the Jungle uses the tropes of video games in creative and inventive ways, simultaneously subverting and paying homage to the medium. The story is suddenly thrust upon our heroes, characters have intentionally thin dialogue, and there’e a clunky exposition scene labeled a “cut-scene” that would have been horribly out of place in any other film. The movie tows the line by constantly reminding you you’re in a video game, while never leaning on it as a crutch.
The video game format is used to its fullest potential when it comes to the world building and exposition. Within the first few scenes, the rules of Welcome to the Jungle are clearly explained and our hero’s are off on their new adventure. Not only that, but the mechanics introduced early on play an important role in the story going forward. It’s not just an on ramp to get us into the story, it’s a brilliant framing device that keeps things consistent and ever moving forward.
Honestly, when you think about it, this is the perfect format for a big blockbuster. By setting this story inside a video game console, it let’s you not only play with physics in a believable way, but it allows you to side step a lot of the narrative pitfalls so many blockbusters find themselves in. Rather than being bogged down by plot elements, Jumanji can just breeze through to the next set piece. This keeps the film moving at a great pace, and frees up room for more character interactions.
The cast is hands down Welcome to the Jungle’s biggest asset. I loved The Rock and Kevin Hart together in Central Intelligence, and their electric chemistry continues here. Karen Gillan also flexes some impressive comedy chops, bringing a delightful charm to the mix. Each member of the cast represents a teenager in the real world, and this leads to more than a few moments of hilarity. Watching The Rock and Kevin Hart feud like immature boys, all while Karen Gillan struggles with her new body (clearly a metaphor for puberty), is fantastic.
However, none master this quite like Jack Black. Black plays the transplanted mind of a teenage girl. Not just any teenage girl, a full on, self obsessed, valley girl. This is every bit as good as you want it to be. Jack Black is downright hilarious in this role. I kept waiting for it to get old or annoying, but it only got better as the film went one. I fully recognize how strange what I’m about to say will sound, but I fully believed that Jack Black was a teenage girl. That is a sentence I never thought I would write, but one I’m so glad I get too. Everyone in the main cast is great, embracing both their own stereotypes, and using those to work through what their teenage counterpart is struggling with in the real world.
It isn’t a film without flaw, as the video game format leaves a massive casualty in it’s central villain. Bobby Cannavale is an extremely talented actor who never seems to be given his due. He plays the films main antagonist, whose name I’ve already forgotten because of how thin his character is. Rather than a dark, power-hungry character, or a sympathetic man trying to make the world abetter place through questionable means, Jumanji Relegates him to a vague entity of evil, with a bland desire for a MacGuffin. In a video game, I don’t much care for a villain’s backstory. I just want a fun story and a few faceless NPC’s to shoot and get to the next level. In a film, we need to understand our villains to better understand what our heroes are up against.
The negatives aren’t only stuck inside the game of Jumanji, as the real-world storyline is only servicable at best. The young actors are alright, but we don’t spend nearly enough time with them to get invested in their setting. The script handles this well, as their storylines are carried on into the digital world of Jumanji, but it seems like the writers just wanted to get to The Rock as soon as possible. No shame in that, as I would certainly want to get to The Rock as quickly as I could were he in my movie, but it does a disservice to the film in the long run. When they cut back to the real world, it returns us to the least interesting part of the film. When young actors reappeared on screen, I was just waiting for the movie to end.
While it deals with some pacing problems, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle tells an action packed, exciting story with a surprising amount of heart thrown in for good measure. The Rock, Karen Gillan and Kevin Hart’s chemistry is electric, and Jack Black delivers what might be the best comedic performance of the year (Tiffany Haddish not withstanding). They’ve already announced a sequel with the main cast returning, and while I never thought I would say this, I’m genuinely excited for whats to come Jumanji 3.
Rating: 3.4 — Good