Because this is 2017, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle sees the board game at the center of 1995’s Jumanji almost obligatorily (and literally) transformed into a video game. Early on, there’s some fresh humor to this film’s ragtag group of tech-reliant high schoolers being sucked into the game and forced to adapt to the pros and cons of their new adult bodies: While the nerd emerges as the buff Dr. Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson) and the shy girl is revamped as the badass Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan), the jock and the self-absorbed hot girl are cut down a few pegs, with the former inhabiting the short and weak manservant Moose Finbar (Kevin Hart) and the latter ironically turning into a schlubby middle-aged man, Professor Shelly Oberon (Jack Black). But the manner in which everyone is reduced to a limited set of clearly defined strengths and weaknesses before being sent on a preordained journey feels every bit as pre-programmed, and often plodding, as the decades-old point-and-click adventure video games that the film alludes to throughout.
Once inside the game, the teens’ new personae engage in obstacles set up in the brief high school-set scenes early in Welcome to the Jungle: scenarios depicting an awkward burgeoning relationship, a bully being put in his place, and a vain girl discovering the value of those close to her each taking center stage at some point along the way. Much of the film’s first half is devoted to laboriously laying out the inner workings of the Jumanji video game’s goal of having its players return a crystal to a remote statue to free a curse on the world of Jumanji. This leads, at the very least, to some amusing digs at the antiquated tropes of ’90s-era video games, such as early titles in the Final Fantasy and King’s Quest series. In-game characters mindlessly repeat lines of dialogue or arrive just in time to save our heroes from a disastrous situation to steering the characters toward an inevitable showdown with the main villain (here it’s Bobby Cannavale playing the perpetually scowling Van Pelt).
But everyone in the film is so thinly conceived that the resolutions to their conflicts play out with all the subtlety of an Afterschool Special, an impression that’s further amplified by incessant speechifying about needing to work as a team in order to beat the game and return home. Inevitably, given the unique specificity of the bodies that the teens are plopped into, Welcome to the Jungle leans hard on trait-based humor, but this only leads to the recycling of jokes that become predictable to the point of exhaustion. And because each character is given three lives upon entering the game, much of the action lacks for suspense and emotional investment, since there’s no real threat of death until the teens’ adult avatars only have one life left. This leaves the film feeling muddled, unable to reconcile a desire to ridicule its own artifice with constant attempts to foster genuine empathy and dramatic tension.