SPOILER ALERT: This film has been in theaters for a while, so I think we're past the point of spoiler alerts. In any case, if you haven't seen the film and would rather watch it with a blank slate, wait until after you've seen the film to read this review.
I've never seen the original Jumanji. Just the fact that you have to qualify by saying the "original" Jumanji may be a turn-off for people experiencing sequel fatigue in a climate where Hollywood seems to be trying to squeeze every last dollar out of previously-used intellectual property. But I'm glad that I came into this film only knowing as much about the earlier film as my wife could tell me five minutes before we started watching it.
I came in with no expectations or preconceived notions and was able to watch the film and experience it for what it is. I think that's the way viewers should always attempt to come to a film - ready to accept whatever it has to give. What Jumanji had to give to me was an incredibly fun ride and, somewhat surprisingly, a thoughtfully-written storyline.
I don't want that to sound overly condescending, though I guess there's no way around it. While I didn't come into this specific film with expectations based upon having never seen the original, I do tend to have certain expectations of action movies as a genre. They're often fun and lighthearted with more than their fair share of cheesy lines of dialogue. All of that was certainly present in this film.
But what was surprising to me about Jumanji as opposed to other action films was that it seemed to be "in on the joke." The writers seemed to have an understanding of some common action movie tropes, and they went out of their way to call them out throughout this film. That's a sure sign of good writing.
The film focuses on a group of high schoolers who are sent to detention for various reasons. The influence of a movie like The Breakfast Club is particularly strong here. In fact, there is an early scene that is a direct homage to that John Hughes-directed 80's classic. From that point, Jumanji moves into the action movie that the trailers depict it to be.
The basic plot is that Jumanji is a video game that literally sucks its players into its own virtual world. In the film's opening scene, we see this happen to a teenager named Alex Vreeke (played first by Mason Guccione, later by Nick Jonas) in the year 1996. The movie then jumps to current time, when our group of unsuspecting delinquents are also sucked in.
That group is comprised of the nerdy Spencer Gilpin (Alex Wolff); Gilpin's former best friend, and now the school's basketball star, Anthony "Fridge" Johnson (Ser'Darius Blain); the popular girl who can't stay off her phone, Bethany Walker (Madison Iseman) and the socially-awkward recluse, Martha Kapley (Morgan Turner).
In detention, the group is forced to clean out the school's storage area. There, they find the old Jumanji game and Spencer convinces the others to play with him. On the game's start-up screen, there is one player character that they are unable to access. They each choose from the other four, and we are clearly given the strengths and weaknesses of each character. Once the characters have been chosen, the game comes to life and sucks each of them into its virtual world.
Once they arrive, they realize that each one of them have now turned into their virtual game characters. Spencer is now the chiseled archaeologist, Dr. Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson). And yes, the name is incredibly cheesy, but I defy anyone to tell me that it isn't fun to watch The Rock use his signature eyebrow-raising stare as he plays a character named Dr. Smolder Bravestone. The other players may not be so excited about their new characters, however.
Fridge is now expert zoologist Franklin "Moose" Finbar (Kevin Hart). He's also a foot shorter than he is in real life. Martha's character is Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan), "killer of men" with a strength in dance fighting. But it is Bethany who undergoes the largest change. She is now cartographer Dr. Shelly Oberon (Jack Black) - a character Bethany mistook due to the description "curvy genius." She's mortified when she finds out that she is now an overweight, middle-aged man.
The differences in characters are played for some geniune laughs throughout the film, as are the differences between the real-life human beings that are playing the characters. The film also cleverly handles its video game narrative with features like tertiary characters who can only speak their programmed lines of dialogue.
To win the game, they must find the legendary gem known as the "Jaguar's Eye." It had been stolen by the explorer John Hardin Van Pelt (Bobby Cannavale), and the team must retrieve it, place it back in the jaguar statue at the center of the island on which they found themselves and simultaneously call out "Jumanji."
To do this, they go through various game levels with tasks they must complete. As I said at the outset, the storyline is incredibly fun, and you really do get invested in these characters. Yes, there are surely some cheesy moments and a few lines of dialogue that will make your eyes roll. But, overall, it's a film that rises above many pitfalls common to action movies due to the way it is written.
A key example would be a scene where the team is attempting to gain access to the transportation terminal so that they can get some kind of vehicle to make their way to the jaguar statue. The terminal is heavily-guarded by armed men. After some deliberation, they decide that Martha as Ruby must go and "distract" the men so that the rest of them can gain access to the terminal.
Now, I think it's fair to say that action movies have been dogged by various levels of misogyny, if not outright sexism, in the past. A scene where a female character is only asked to use her looks to flirt with the guards while the other characters complete the necessary action would certainly be an egregious continuation of that history.
But this scene doesn't do that, and it becomes far more powerful for it.
Martha begins by trying to flirt with the guards, but after a few minutes, she remembers her character strengths. This is when we found out what "dance-fighting" means. As the other characters watch from the safety of the terminal, Martha pummels the guards to the tune of "Baby I Love Your Way" by Peter Frampton. In the process, they all realize that they will need to work together using each of their character strenghts to complete the mission.
This is also around the time they realize that the fifth character they met inside the game - Jefferson "Seaplane" McDonough (Nick Jonas) - is actually Alex Vreeke. He's been stuck as this character inside the game for 20 years, which is why none of them could choose that character when they began.
I won't give away too much of the remainder of the plot, but I will say that I was impressed with how character-driven this film was. Often in action films like these, the plot is the be-all-end-all. That's fine, but character development tends to fade in pursuit of whatever quest is being attempted. Here, it is the journey that these characters take together through their virtual representations that ends up being most important when we get to the film's closing moments.
Will I go back and watch the original now? Probably, at some point. But I was encouraged at how well this film stands on its own. It's a fun ride, and without the emptiness of most films of its kind.
Note on content: There is some minor sexual dialogue throughout the film that mainly deals with how Bethany's character processes her change into a virtual man. Ruby Roundhouse is seen wearing a revealing outfit throughout the film, and she uses her looks to distract guards in one scene. The sexual content alone may be enough to warrant keeping particularly young viewers from watching it. Nothing is graphic, but it is prevalent throughout the film. There is mild profanity throughout as well, and video game-style violence is also frequent. The movie is rated PG-13, and parents will need to use discretion as to what age and personality will be appropriate for a film like this. Overall, I think most adults and teenagers would find it appropriate and enjoyable.