'Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle': Film Review

An enjoyable modernization of Chris Van Allsburg's storybook source material.
12/20/2017

High school nerd Alex Wolff transforms into The Rock in Jake Kasdan's action-fantasy sequel.

Stepping far enough away from Chris Van Allsburg's 1981 children's book Jumanji to appeal to older kids while remaining just connected enough to justify keeping the name, Jake Kasdan's Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle reimagines the book's magic-board-game conceit for the era of video games. By transforming its teen heroes into adult avatars, this outing both gets beyond the discomfort of throwing small kids into peril (a complaint some critics made against Joe Johnston's 1995 adaptation starring Robin Williams) and finds a way to milk a talented crew of A-list grown-ups — toplined by Dwayne Johnson and Kevin Hart — for comic value. Young audiences should enjoy the body-swap adventure, which has a few dopey moments but in general is funny enough for their parents to enjoy as well.

Modernization only goes so far here. Instead of making Jumanji, say, an augmented-reality smartphone app — a promising way to have fantasy and the mundane world collide — the screenwriting team reimagines it as a 1990s-style gaming console. In a prologue, a lone teenager stumbles across the game in 1996, turns it on and is immediately transported from his bedroom into some world we do not see.

Cut to the present day, as Spencer (Alex Wolff) squirts some sanitizer on his hands, packs his EpiPen and heads into the germ-filled world of high school. After a brisk sequence of events, he winds up stuck in detention alongside football player Fridge (Ser'Darius Blain), narcissistic Bethany (Madison Iseman) and the introverted Martha (Morgan Turner). They're supposed to be cleaning up the school's vast storage closet as punishment for their assorted transgressions. But when they find this relic of a videogame among the detritus (who knows how it got to school from that kid's bedroom), the four decide to try it out. They, too, get sucked into another dimension.

Thrown into a dense jungle, each kid is transformed into the character he or she selected, Mortal Kombat-style, when they fired the game up. Luckily for the film's comic side, each unwittingly chose someone very unlike himself: Scrawny and skittish Spencer becomes The Rock's Smolder Bravestone, the expedition leader. The jock is now a diminutive zoologist, Moose Finbar (Kevin Hart), and is none too pleased about it. Mousy Martha is kick-ass Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan, Doctor Who's Amy Pond), and immediately complains about her dumb Lara Croft-like wardrobe of exposed midriff and breast-hugging shoulder holsters. And Instagram-addicted Bethany, so proud of her hotness, has turned into a tubby, balding middle-aged man, Jack Black's Professor Shelly Oberon.

The script winks at videogame conventions as it explains its heroes' strengths and weaknesses, gives them a mission and reveals that each has three lives to expend before it's "Game Over" for real. They're supposed to find a magical "jewel of the jungle" and return it to a giant statue's eye socket. But that stone is also hunted by a villain (Bobby Cannavale) who has somehow become one with the jungle's beasts, making his body a skin-crawling home for millipedes and scorpions.

Structuring its challenges in the level-by-level mode familiar to gamers, the movie's action has a much more ordinary feel than that of the earlier picture. But while each stage of their quest seems like it would make for a pretty easy-to-beat video game, the action suffices in big-screen terms.

The film's main appeal is in watching familiar actors pretend to be ordinary kids grappling with their new selves. Johnson is predictably charming, imagining himself as a kid suddenly blessed not just with a spectacular physique but a superpower defined as "smoldering intensity." And Black gets the expected kind of laughs as he mimics the voice and gestures of a mean girl who recoils at being stuck in this unbangable bod but is then, I don't know, kind of fascinated to have a penis? Gillan and Hart more than hold up their end of things, and while the choice of music could be much better, Ruby Roundhouse's demonstrations of her "dance fighting" skills are crowd-pleasing.

Occasional character-development interludes reek of group screenwriting sessions: "Guys, how can we use the fewest possible lines to get across the idea that these kids are learning important lessons about themselves?" But a shy romance between Spencer/Bravestone and Martha/Roundhouse charmingly exploits some of these choose-who-you'll-be-in-life notions, and an encounter with a stranger who has also been trapped in the game gives even Bethany a credible shot at redemption.

Production companies: Matt Tolmach Productions, Seven Bucks Productions, Columbia Pictures
Distributor: Columbia Pictures
Cast: Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Karen Gillan, Jack Black, Bobby Cannavale, Nick Jonas, Rhys Darby, Alex Wolff, Ser'Darius Blain, Madison Iseman, Morgan Turner
Director: Jake Kasdan
Screenwriters: Chris McKenna, Jeff Pinker, Scott Rosenberg, Erik Sommers
Producers: Ted Field, William Teitler, Matt Tolmach, Mike Weber
Executive producers: Dany Garcya, David B. Householter, Jake Kasdan
Director of photography: Gyula Pados
Production designer: Owen Paterson
Costume designer: Laura Jean Shannon
Editors: Steve Edwards, Mark Helfrich
Composer: Henry Jackman
Casting directors: Nicole Abellera, Jeanne McCarthy

Rated PG-13, 118 minutes