In the annals of movies for which nobody particularly wanted or needed a sequel but got one anyway—a phenomenon of worrying frequency in recent years—few stand out as that rarest of things: a genuinely pleasant surprise that feels less like a sequel than a reboot, and less like a reboot than a rejuvenation. One that surpasses its source material by a wide margin by not trying too hard to pay homage to details long forgotten and instead focusing on an almost completely different take on its origins. One that is a fun yarn that merits repeated viewings by being neither too deep nor too dumb. One that delivers to its audience an unexpected dose of character and heart enabled by a distinct lack of cynicism and a production that really looks like it’s having as much fun making the movie as its audience is meant to have watching it. That movie is Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, and it is the kind of movie that gives itself a hundred opportunities to self-destruct and blessedly never does.
The story takes place in the modern day, as four kids share Saturday detention. Spencer the nerd is in for writing a paper on behalf of his estranged jock friend Fridge, while social media starlet Bethany is in for refusing to halt a phone call in class and introverted Martha is doing time for telling off her gym teacher. Sentenced to cleaning out a storage room, the four discover an old video game console and plug it in for kicks, not realizing that the thing is enchanted and has a long history of sucking its players into the game itself, perhaps never to let them go. Before we know it, Spencer, Fridge, Bethany and Martha are all dropped into a wild jungle environment as the video game alter egos they have chosen for themselves: the rock-hard explorer Dr. Smoulder Bravestone, the stumpy zoologist Mouse Finbar, the portly cartographer Shelly Oberon and the gorgeous commando Ruby Roundhouse. As the kids try to understand their new characters’ abilities, they must solve solve the world-ending puzzle built into the game if they ever want to see their normal lives again. But the disappearing hashmarks on their arms reveal that they each have only three lives to live in Jumanji, and this is a world in which instant death is around every corner. To get out, Sheldin, Fridge, Bethany and Martha are going to have to learn what risks are really worth taking, how to trust each other and how to work together. And maybe not eat cake. Don’t eat the cake.
Half of this movie’s entertainment comes from watching the Rock, Jack Black, Kevin Hart and Karen Gillian pretend to be insecure high school kids suddenly trapped in bodies that are not their own in a world that makes no sense. At first, we get to have some cheap laughs at all this as Bethany learns that playing a “curvy genius” means becoming Jack Black with a Ph.D, and seeing the mammoth Fridge cope with having to run around on Kevin Hart’s legs. But before the movie wears that out, it reminds us that this is a world of genuine peril, and once we’re done laughing at our characters, we get to have a blast watching them come into their own as the uniquely specialized heroes they are supposed to be.
At first glance this movie almost feels like some Boomer’s screed against kids who would rather play video games all day than go outside: “Back in my day, we bled and died in the woods for fun! Now, you have to, too.” Or, it feels like an extended form of retribution against the tropes of childhood awkwardness: the bully who is made physically powerless, the vain starlet turned into her physical opposite, the awkward introvert who suddenly has to deal with attracting more attention that she can handle, the risk-averse neurotic thrust into a dangerous role of uncertainty. But this movie is way more about the players than the game, and for everyone who ever wondered it would be like to actually enter the world of a video game, Jumanji is a curt reminder that video games worlds are meant to be survived, not lived in, and they are often enjoyed more as a group effort than a solo endeavor.
And yet, as we watch our heroes make their way through the increasingly challenging environments of Jumanji, what we really come to see is how these really are just kids who are trying to figure themselves out in real life. The life-threatening challenges they have to overcome become handy metaphors for the real-life baggage each of them is hauling around. And the more they become heroes, the more they do so because they’re growing up into the young adults they know they can be, rather than the wayward kids they think they are.
Throughout the movie, we are reminded of how many lives the kids all have left, and as things count down to zero for each of them, the tone begins to shift a little. After all, courage is easy when you have three lives; heroism is what you do when you’ve only got one. And we see it in moments of truth both great and small. Like when Bethany willingly gives up one of her lives to transfer it to somebody who just lost their last one. Or, when Sheldin and Martha realize that they’ve for a thing for each other and go in for their first kiss. What results is perhaps the most spectacularly bad first kiss ever filmed, and it sets us up for a proper revisitation later that requires some real guts, honestly. Three lives or not, nobody ever survives two awful kisses in a row.