When I heard they were making another “Jumanji,” my hopes were not exactly high. In fact, my hopes were lower than a millipede’s foot fungus. The original in 1995 was a nice little family film that rode good intentions, the then-latest in CGI, the star power of Robin Williams, and the mini-Bonnie Hunt boomlet of the mid 90s into $100 million at the box office and a small niche in America’s collective pop culture memory. Doing another version 22 years later that seemed like a mix of sequel and reboot with none of the original cast and barely even the same concept did not seem encouraging. How many times have we seen a similar effort yield a cinematic disaster?
This edition of KIMT’s Weekend Throwdown will check if my expectations were suitably low or if Hollywood again found a way to burrow under them. It’s “Jumanji” (1995) vs “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” (2017) to see if adding a subtitle from a 1987 Guns N’ Roses song is a mark of creative genius or a harbinger of creative exhaustion.
“Jumanji” (1995) is the story of two pairs of kids. Alan Parrish and Sarah Whittle (Adam Hann-Byrd and Laura Bell Bundy) start playing a cursed board game in 1969 only to see Alan wind up sucked inside it. Jump forward 26 years and a couple of orphans, Judy and Peter Shepherd (Kirsten Dunst and Bradley Pierce), move into Alan’s old home with their aunt (Bebe Neuwirth). They find the cursed game and start playing it, eventually releasing the now grown up Alan (Robin Williams) from the savage jungle world within. They also wind up releasing a host of destructive animals and an obsessed hunter (Jonathan Hyde) who run rampant through the house and the surrounding town. The only way to fix everything is to finish the game and that means recruiting the reluctant adult Sarah (Bonnie Hunt) to join them.
Watching “Jumanji” (1995) again reminded me of an old world fairy tale because this thing is much, much darker than I realized back when I watched it the first time. This movie includes:
1. A violently bullied young boy running away from home because of his rigid and emotionally distant father.
2. That young boy spending over a quarter-century in a hellish environment where death and brutality were constant close companions.
3. His return as a grown man to find everything he knew and loved either dead or in ruins.
4. A young brother and sister still seriously traumatized by the death of their parents. The sister has become a chronic liar and the brother won’t speak to anyone but her.
5. An adult woman who has been reduced to a shut-in by the emotional and psychological scars from her childhood witness of another kid getting devoured by an evil board game.
It’s like a family-friendly comedy as written by the Marquis de Sade.
Turning a 32 page picture book first published in 1981 into a commercially and creatively successful feature film may qualify “Jumanji” (1995) as one of the greatest big screen adaptations in motion picture history. Not that the movie itself is a masterpiece but considering the sheer amount of original plot, characters, motivations, backstory, and emotional arcs they had to add to come up with for a 104 minute film, it’s amazing this thing is any good at all.
And it is quite good. Robin Williams is at his restrained best here. His performance as grown up Alan still thinking and feeling very much as a child is exactly right to make this motion picture work. If Williams had been too dramatic, the whole story would have imploded. If he had been too frivolous, it would have been impossible for the audience to care about anything that happened. Bonnie Hunt is, as always, a delight. The child actors are noticeably inoffensive. The screenplay throws so much emotional spaghetti against the wall amongst the special effects that the movie never stumbles or lags. None of the individual traumas get resolved all that well, particularly how neither Judy’s lying nor Peter’s muteness turn out to be important as the story goes along, but at least there’s a great deal of energy put into making the main characters something more than nails for the Almighty Plot Hammer.
Most of the CGI and practical effects in “Jumanji” (1995) are pretty blah by modern standards but this movie proves once again that an intelligible story about likeable characters can overcome any technical limitations.
I wasn’t worried about the special effects in “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” (2017). I was worried the story would be a piece of garbage that badly butchered and recycled the original to churn out a Fraudulent Sequel. That’s the term I apply to these soulless cash grabs that essentially make the exact same film again and slap a “Part II” on it to try and pretend otherwise. To my profound surprise, “Welcome to the Jungle” is a legitimately smart and good-hearted attempt to expand on “Jumanji” in ways that take the viewer somewhere new while not taking a steaming dump on what came before. This is the kind of sequel/reboot everyone in Hollywood says they want to make but stunningly few of them ever do.
It begins in 1996, with the cursed board game reinventing itself as a home video game for a new generation of victims. Jump forward to 2017 and a motley “Breakfast Club” crew of high school kids serving detention discover the game and start to play, only to find themselves sucked inside and occupying the game avatars they chose. The young nerd (Alex Wolff) finds himself the superhuman Dr. Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson). A hulking football stud (Ser’Darius Blain) who relies on the nerd for his homework becomes Bravestone’s diminutive and much less powerful sidekick, “Mouse” Finbar (Kevin Hart). A selfie-obsessed hot chick (Madison Iseman) transforms into the portly Professor Oberon (Jack Black). And an awkward girl-loner (Morgan Turner) becomes badass video game babe Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan). The quartet has to band together to complete each level of the game in order to return to the real world.
Much more of a teen-centered flick in subject matter and attitude, “Welcome to the Jungle” wonderfully succeeds as a motion picture by doing almost the exact opposite of what we’ve been led to expect from this sort of long-delayed sequel/reboot. Other than a brief appearance of the cursed board game and another callback to the original, “Welcome to the Jungle” has virtually nothing in common with “Jumanji.” The characters are different people who undergo different emotional journeys. In the first film, the main characters simply had to survive the action sequences and everything important about them as people happened when things weren’t trying to kill them. The people trapped in “Welcome to the Jungle” are much more active in driving the plot with their decisions and what takes place frequently plays a part in their evolution into better people. The second movie has a much more complicated premise and repeatedly makes those complications meaningful to the story and how we feel about what the characters are doing.
The cast of “Welcome to the Jungle” are excellent. Dwayne Johnson proves yet again that he may be one of the most versatile big screen action heroes we’ve ever seen. Karen Gillan does a great job with a multi-layered role. She has to play a teenaged girl who suddenly finds herself in a body designed for the male gaze but without the slightest idea how to make that body work. And you might think Jack Black playing a self-centered teen bimbo would get old rather quickly. You would be wrong.
The action sequences are well conceived and the movie does some very clever stuff with the concept that each of the video game avatars has three lives. It also has some fun with video game clichés without getting too detailed and leaving non-games confused.
“Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” (2017) is one of the best made and most entertaining sequel/reboots I have seen in a long time, but “Jumanji” (1995) remains endearing enough that I must declare this Throwdown a push. Though separated by two decades, both of these films are deserving of your attention. Certainly more worthwhile than going to see “The Last Jedi” again.
Written by Jonathan Hensleigh, Greg Taylor, and Jim Strain.
Directed by Joe Johnston.
Starring Robin Williams, Bonnie Hunt, Jonathan Hyde, Kirsten Dunst, Bradley Pierce, Bebe Neuwirth, David Alan Grier, Patricia Clarkson, Adam Hann-Byrd, Laura Bell Bundy, James Handy, Gillian Barber, and Gary Joseph Thorup.
Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (2017)
Written by Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers, Scott Rosenberg, and Jeff Pinker.
Directed by Jake Kasdan.
Starring Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Jack Black, Karen Gillan, Rhys Darby, Bobby Cannavale, Nick Jonas, Alex Wolff, Ser’Darius Blain, Madison Iseman, Morgan Turner, Mason Guccione, and Tracey Bonner.