In writer-director Jake Kasdan’s 2006 film The TV Set, a TV writer worries himself sick about the material he might be putting out into the universe. At one point, the main character states, “If I don’t worry about the content in my show, then I’m part of the problem! I’m making the world more mediocre!” Lately it seems like Hollywood simply runs on easy to promote, big-budget takes on existing properties, ever since films like Jurassic World and 21 Jump Street proved that literally any idea could be revitalized successfully. With Kasdan’s latest film, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, it’s the rare reboot that is better than the original – albeit slightly – yet it’s still the type of mediocrity that Kasdan once fretted about putting into the world.
Jumanji’s updates for 2017 makes this pseudo-sequel only a follow-up in name only. Soon after Robin Williams and company dumped the board game in 1995, Jumanji somehow updated itself into a video game, and captured a self-proclaimed metal-head into its console. Over twenty years later, four high school students find the game during detention, plug it in and are sucked into the video game world of Jumanji, turning themselves into avatars completely unlike themselves. The nerdy video game fan Spencer (Alex Wolff) transformers into a character with no weaknesses (Dwayne Johnson). Spencer’s former best friend and star football player Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain) becomes his sidekick (Kevin Hart). Smart girl Martha (Morgan Turner) turns into a fighting master (Karen Gillan). Cellphone obsessed Bethany (Madison Iseman) transfers into middle-aged male cartographer (Jack Black). In order to escape the video game console, they must retrieve an emerald from the game’s villain Van Pelt (an underused Bobby Cannavale), who is apparently comprised of nothing but bugs, and place it into a statue that overlooks the land of Jumanji.
Written by The LEGO Batman and Spider-Man: Homecoming’s Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers, along with Scott Rosenberg and Jeff Pinker, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle doesn’t subvert its interesting premise enough, instead overloading the story with far too many MacGuffins, and like a video game, an excessive amount of objectives. Jumanji occasionally has some fun with the fact that these four are in a video game, presenting the world with non-playable characters that only respond to certain dialogue, or cutscenes that help these characters know what to do next, but these ideas are dropped almost entirely quite early on. Instead, Jumanji wrongly believes that keeping these characters on the hunt for a piece of a map, that will lead them to a clue, that will lead them to a statue, etc. is much more compelling for this story.
While the screenplay might be weighed down in heavy plotting, its the performances here that invigorate Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle’s premise. Much like how Robin Williams’ childish mentality in the original film was a strong point, watching this ensemble play their high school personas sustains the rather weak story. Even though the jokes are stale – especially the tired jokes at the expense of Millennials coming from Black – their performances enliven the bland comedy. The dedication and commitment that Johnson, Gillan, and Black have to playing their high school versions makes the jokes work, even when the dialogue works against them. Unfortunately, the character of Fridge is so one-dimensional, it allows Hart to fall back on his usual schtick that doesn’t quite fit along this group.
Compared to many other recent reboots of old franchises, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is a mildly entertaining and incredibly predictable update that isn’t without its charm. Jumanji’s solid cast gives their all, and despite a boring script, Kasdan still improves upon the original. Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle may be the mediocrity that Kasdan once warned of, but it’s still a step up from what preceded it.