Jumanji is back, activating the time-honoured sequel device of bringing in character actors from the older grandparent generation. It is showing every sign of becoming a very solid family-movie franchise, cheerfully drawing once more on the traditions of Indiana Jones and the body-swap movies of yesteryear. And there is once again a really nice quadrophonic chemistry between its four stars: Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Karen Gillan and Jack Black (joined by more big names this time around), and the odd-couple comedy bonding of Hart and Johnson. (A noticeable flaw is that Black does not get much of a chance to demonstrate his comedy chops.)
In the previous instalment of the franchise, four high-school kids, Bethany (Madison Iseman), Spence (Alex Wolff), Martha (Morgan Turner) and Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain), were catapulted into the VR world of the Jumanji video game, occupying avatars on a mission to rescue someone trapped inside its colossal invented landscape. And Spence got to exist inside the body of alpha-male explorer Dr Smoulder Bravestone, amusingly played by Johnson – an experience that allowed him to escape his wimpy-nerdishness, value himself for who he is, and learn that it’s what inside that counts.
Now, a couple of years have gone by, the quartet are at college and things aren’t quite as happy as we might have hoped. Spence is at NYU, lonely, stressed and pining for his bygone triumph in the imaginary world of Jumanji. Without his three friends realising it, he has retrieved the Jumanji game console and has once again made a desperate leap into the digital rabbit-hole. It looks as if the remaining three will have to leap in after him – but now we make the acquaintance of Spence’s crotchety but good-natured grandpa Eddie, played by Danny DeVito, and Eddie’s old codger pal Milo, played by Danny Glover. Through a weird quirk of fate, it is Fridge and Martha who re-enter Jumanji, bizarrely accompanied by wacky old Eddie and Milo, with Bethany left behind, to search out the object of their original quest: Alex, played in the real world by Colin Hanks and in the game by Nick Jonas. They too will wind up in this fantasy universe.
So the question of who plays who has been reshuffled and suffice it to say DeVito’s grumpy, pernickety, wisecracking old dude now occupies the mighty body of Johnson – giving Johnson a chance to show his comedy stylings, and pretty impressive they are. It is rare in the literal-minded world of Hollywood (in any genre) to let an actor show off in this theatrical way. As for Glover’s laidback Milo, he occupies the body of zoologist Moose Finbar, played by Hart – and Hart is funny in more or less the way he would have been anyway. Martha is once again biologist Ruby Roundhouse and Fridge is annoyed to find himself inside Jack Black’s body. And where is Spence? Whose body does he inhabit? Well, this is a casting reveal, and it would be unsporting to say more, but more performance comedy ensues.
What gives Jumanji its likability is that it has the emphases and comedy beats of an animation, but also the performance technique of live action – and the occasional reshuffling of avatars and players lets the actors show off a little bit further. Jumanji’s next level is rather satisfying. Perhaps the next Jumanji film will experiment with an “acoustic unplugged” version which takes place solely in the real world, or a dark version in which Martha becomes a hip games designer who introduces a Battle Royale element. But my prediction is that fans would be perfectly happy with another episode on the same lines as before.
•Released in the UK on 11 December, in the US 13 December, and in Australia on 26 December.
Source: The Guardian