Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle
If anyone was clamoring for a sequel to 1995’s Jumanji, starring Robin Williams and based on the Chris Van Allsburg book, their cries weren’t exactly reaching the ears of decision-makers or, frankly, anyone. Nevertheless, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is upon us and it’s refreshingly a lot better than it sounds.
Despite its quizzical existence, the fun, goofy comedic adventure is basically a PG-13 analog for the R-rated Jump Street movies and the underrated PG-rated Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs series, albeit cheapened by forced messages about identity, unironically accompanied by a manipulative string score.
In world where magical board games no longer entice players, Welcome to the Jungle centers on four teens who get sent to detention, where they power up what looks like a Sega Genesis knock-off with the game Jumanji inserted and find themselves not only beamed into the game, but in the body of the avatar each of them chose.
And so, judgmental outsider Martha (Morgan Turner) is commando/dance fight specialist Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan) and hypochondriac Spencer (Alex Wolff) becomes chiseled do-it-all archeologist Dr. Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson).
More humorous, however, is football star Fridge (Ser'Darius Blain) shrinking to pint-sized zoologist Moose Finbar (Kevin Hart) and self-absorbed beauty Bethany (Madison Iseman) finding herself in the schlubby form of brainy Professor Shelly Oberon (Jack Black).
With help from temporary guide Nigel (Rhys Darby), the transplanted quartet learn that they must save the once prosperous nation of Jumanji by returning the sacred Jaguar's Eye gem stolen by evil explorer John Van Pelt (Bobby Cannavale, giving a so-so audition for the Universal monsters’ Dark Universe reboot) to its proper home.
In the process, Spencer schools them in the video game logic that controls their fate while they discover each other’s strengths and weaknesses out in the field to entertaining ends.
Who would concoct such a premise? Following the lead of many modern big studio ventures, Welcome to the Jungle is the product of an odd convergence of scribes, these with credits ranging from Spiderman: Homecoming and The LEGO Batman Movie to The Dark Tower and some lesser Nicolas Cage/Jerry Bruckheimer films.
Under the leadership of the unexpectedly capable Jake Kasdan (Zero Effect; Sex Tape) and fortified by decent special effects, the hodgepodge of writerly talent keep the action moving and the jokes coming while the core cast shines.
Handed the most mismatched fantasy, Black makes good on the role’s potential with each line, which he imbues with his best whiny teenage girl impression. Bethany discovering how men urinate may be the film’s highlight, but her giving Martha a crash course in how to get a man’s attention — for distraction purposes, of course — isn’t far behind.
Dusting off her Guardians of the Galaxy fighting skills, Gillan makes for an excellent Lara Croft substitute while Johnson realizes the unbridled cheeky fun that eluded him on this year’s Baywatch and, for the first time outside of voicing animated characters, Hart achieves basic likability and then some.
Ably conveying Fridge’s frustrations at a reduced stature and an evaporated athletic prowess helps, but Hart truly excels at being part of an ensemble and playing an actual character rather than his usual barely sketched Napoleonic complex sufferers with a penchant for whiny ad-libbing.
Where his character and the others wind up may hardly be called surprising, but it’s the journey there that counts, and in getting viewers to the credits with smiles and cheer in tact, Welcome to the Jungle is a success.
Grade: B. Rated PG-13. Now playing at AMC Classic, Biltmore Grande and Carolina Cinemark
(Photo: Columbia Pictures)