The most fun you can have with Jack Black’s penis.

In 1995, Joe Johnston (“The Rocketeer”, “Captain America: The First Avenger”) directed “Jumanji” – a quirky, fantastical and dark film starring the late, great Robin Williams that got a rough critical reception at the time of release, but was embraced by the public and has gone on to be a modern classic. So when it was announced that a sequel was in the works 22 years later, my first reaction was “Oh no… is nothing sacred?”. It’s fair to say that I went into this flick with extremely low expectations.

But I have to say that – given this low base – I was pleasantly surprised. It’s actually quite a fun fantasy film that I predict that older kids will adore. 

Seriously kick-ass. Karen Gillan – or rather one of her stunt doubles – gets hands… er… feet on with an aggressive level-character.

Initially set (neatly) in 1995, a teen – Alex (Nick Jonas, of the Jonas Brothers) unearths the board game Jumanji where it ended up buried in beach-sand at the end of the last film. “Who plays board games any more?” he scoffs, which the game hears and morphs into a game cartridge. Cheesy? Yes, but no more crazy than the goings on of the first film. Back in 2017, four high-school teens – geeky Spencer (Alex Wolff, “Patriot’s Day“); sports-jock Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain); self-obsessed beauty Bethany (Madison Iseman); and self-conscious, nerdy and shy Martha (Morgan Turner) – find the game and are sucked into it, having to complete all the game levels before they can escape.

Bethany (Madison Iseman) wishing she had her phone out for a selfie of this.

But they are not themselves in the game; they adopt the Avatars they chose to play: Dr Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson, “San Andreas“); Moose Finbar (Kevin Hart, “Get Hard“); Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan, “Dr Who”, “The Circle“; “Guardians of the Galaxy“); and Professor Shelly Oberon (Jack Black, “Sex Tape“, “Kong”).  Can they combine their respective game talents – and suppress the human mental baggage they brought with them – to escape the game?

Avatars all. Kevin Hart, Dwayne Johnson, Karen Gillan and Jack Black.

There was a really dark time-travelling angle to the storyline of the original film – the traumatic start of Disney’s “Flight of the Navigator” was perhaps also borrowed from the concept in the book by Chris Van Allsburg. An attempt is made to recreate this in the sequel. I felt the first film rather pulled its punches though in favour of a Hollywood happy ending:  will this be the case this time?  

The film delivers laughs, but in a rather inconsistent fashion – it is mostly smile-worthy rather than laugh-out-loud funny. Much fun is had with the sex change of Bethany’s character, with Jack Black’s member featuring – erm – prominently. The characters all have strengths and weaknesses, like a game of Top Trumps, and this also entertains. But the most humour derives from the “three lives and it’s game over” device giving the opportunity for various grisly ends, often relating to the above referenced weaknesses. 

A weakness for cake… something many of us have, but not quite to this extent.

Given the cast that’s been signed up, the acting is not exactly first rate although Karen Gillan shines as the brightest star. But “it’s not bloody Shakespeare” so ham-acting is not that much of a problem and the cast all have fun with their roles. Dwayne Johnson in particular gets to play out of character as the ‘nerd within the hunk’, and his “smouldering look” skill – arched eyebrow and all – is hilarious. Rhys Darby, looking so much like Hugh Jackman that I had to do several double takes, also turns up as an English game-guide in a Land Rover, and Bobby Cannavale (“Ant Man“) is Van Pelt, the villain of the piece.

There has been much controversy over Karen Gillan’s child-sized outfit. But she is clearly a parallel to the well-endowed Lara Croft, and young male teens didn’t play that game for the jungle scenery! She is meant to be a hot and sexy video game character, and man – does she deliver! Gillan is not just hot in the film: she is #lavahot. This makes her comic attempts at flirting lessons (as the internally conflicted Martha) especially funny. Hats off to her stunt doubles as well, for some awe-inspiring martial arts fight scenes.

I’m sure I’ve had this dream at some point. Karen Gillan (centre) with her talented stunt doubles Jahnel Curfman and Joanna Bennett.

Fans of “Lost” will delight in the Jumanji scenery, surely one of the most over-used film locations in Hawaii if not the world!

Where the film gets bogged down is in too much cod-faced philosophizing over the teenager’s “journeys”. This is laid on in such a clunky manner in the early (slow!) scenes that the script could have been significantly tightened up. And as I said above the script,  written (rather obviously) by a raft of writers, could have been so much funnier. Most of the humour comes from visually seeing what’s happening: not from the dialogue.

Directed by Jake Kasdan (son of director and Star Wars/Raiders screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan) it’s really not half as bad as it could have been and certainly not as bad as I feared: I would gladly watch it again. For it’s target audience, which is probably kids aged 10 to 14, I think they will love it. And, unlike many holiday films, the parents won’t be totally bored either (especially the Dads, for the obvious misogynistic reasons outlined above!).

Fad Rating: FFFf.

The trailer gives some of the better gags away… so is not recommended before the film: