The Breakfast Club (1985) made an impact that still resonates today. Its strategy involved forcing together dissimilar teens and having them discover things about each other and themselves. Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, directed by Jake Kasdan, uses this same technique in a tropical adventure that is consistently funny, endearing, and, at times, moving. The film takes four of The Breakfast Club’s character tropes (the nerd, the socially awkward girl, the star athlete, and the self-absorbed pretty girl) and places them in detention (another carryover from the ’80s masterpiece). However, the action quickly strays from the reality-based path of The Breakfast Club when the newer film’s characters get sucked into the world of ’90s video game Jumanji (unlike the original Jumanji , where the board game world comes to them).
Each player occupies an avatar who is, in many ways, his or her physical opposite. Nerdy Spencer becomes archeologist/explorer Dr. Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson). Bravestone, endowed with muscles, brains, and a “smoldering intensity”, has no weaknesses (according to his character profile). Fridge, star football player and estranged best friend of Spencer, downsizes to zoologist Franklin “Mouse” Finbar (Kevin Hart). Spencer’s budding love interest Martha inherits “killer of men” Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan), a martial arts expert whose repertoire includes “dance fighting”. In the biggest physical reversal, egotistical beauty Bethany becomes Dr. Sheldon (Shelly) Oberon (Jack Black), a middle-aged male cartographer.
The film goes on to offer a lot of what one would expect in an Indiana Jones movie: a concrete goal (i.e. return the “Jaguar’s Eye” jewel to the tall jaguar stone statue deep within the jungle), a one-dimensional villain (Bobby Cannavale), and lots of action. However, unlike Jones, the characters in Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle make more significant personal journeys and discoveries.
The video game setting feels authentic. For instance, each character gets three lives, and peripheral characters often repeat themselves in their attempts to guide players’ decisions. In one action sequence, Spencer/Bravestone calls out his moves and makes contact noises in the vein of the late-’60s Batman series as he plows through bad guys.
Teaming up for the second time—the first was Central Intelligence (2016)—Johnson and Hart prove an effective comic duo. What works so well for Johnson is that while we’re used to seeing him in heroic roles, many of his actions in this film are decidedly unheroic: he runs from trouble, kisses awkwardly, and makes high-pitched declarations of surprise. Hart delivers his typical high-energy, highly physical performance. Black shows he is at ease playing any role—it truly feels as if he is a female teen trapped in a middle-aged man’s body. One of the most engagingly awkward developments is Bethany/Oberon falling for one of Jumanji’s male inhabitants.
Most, though not all, of this film is predictable, and that is okay. The humour and original concept carry it through. Its teenage characters, who live in a world that values appearance and physical feats, get an opportunity to do some much-needed introspection—those lacking confidence get more physically advanced avatars, while those who thrive on appearance and physicality get taken down a notch physically… and they all learn something. – Douglas J. Ogurek *****