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Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (2017)

DIRECTOR: Jake Kasdan

CAST: Dwayne Johnson, Jack Black, Kevin Hart, Karen Gillan, Nick Jonas, Bobby Cannavale, Alex Wolff, Madison Iseman, Morgan Turner, Ser’Darius Blain

REVIEW:

While it’s remembered with a certain amount of nostalgic fondness, 1995’s Jumanji is not that great of a movie.  For that matter, neither is the long-belated indirect sequel (of sorts) Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, but considering both my lukewarm enthusiasm for the original, and the fact that I wouldn’t consider myself a particular fan of the cast members, it’s a more enjoyable romp than expected.  For lightweight action-comedy, it’s an adequately diverting entry that arguably provides marginally more entertainment than the original, courtesy of a certain degree of wit in its humor, a canny satire of 1990s video games, and some actors gamely poking fun at themselves.

We start with four random high school students, nerdy Spencer Gilpin (Alex Wolff), his estranged former best friend, football hotshot Fridge Johnson (Ser’Darius Blain), popular girl and self-absorbed airhead Bethany Walker (Madison Iseman), and mousey, anti-social Martha Kaply (Morgan Turner), who for various reasons all end up in detention together.  Consigned to cleaning the basement, they stumble across Jumanji, which has revamped itself to mimic a 1990s video game.  Bored and unenthusiastic about their chores, they decide to kill time by picking four game avatars and hitting play, before soon realizing this wasn’t a good idea.  The bewildered quartet is soon sucked into the jungle, where they’re further confused to find they’re now in the bodies of their chosen game avatars.  This, by the way, is where the lion’s share of the comedic material comes from, as nerdy Spencer finds he is now musclebound action hero “Smolder Bravestone” (Dwayne Johnson), strapping football player Fridge is chagrined to have shrunk into the diminutive “Moose Finbar” (Kevin Hart) and be relegated to Spencer’s “sidekick” (a role he doesn’t take enthusiastically to), mousy Martha is suddenly hot redhead bad-ass “Ruby Roundhouse” (Karen Gillan), and conceited Bethany realizes to her horror that she’s now stuck in the body of a pudgy middle-aged man, Professor Shelly Oberon (Jack Black).  But, like those who’ve played this game before, the mismatched foursome will find the only way out is to complete the game, which involves thwarting the evil Van Pelt (Bobby Cannavale) and teaming up with a long-lost earlier player (Nick Jonas), who’s been stuck in the game for decades.

The two biggest comedic highlights of Welcome to the Jungle are watching actors like Dwayne Johnson and Jack Black do their best impressions of a timid nerd and a conceited high school girl stuck in wildly ill-fitting bodies, and a spot-on parody of 1990s video games.  It’s not long before the players realize they have a finite number of “lives” they can use up before it’s game over (permanently), and winning requires passing through increasingly difficult levels, solving riddles, and eventually facing the “boss” level main villain, Van Pelt, who like the game itself has been revamped.  The movie has plenty of fun with the tropes and limitations of console games, including arbitrary strengths and weaknesses (Moose explodes if he eats cake), intentionally corny dialogue, a built-in game guide (an amusingly deadpan Rhys Darby) who serves to dump clunky exposition and has limited default responses, and the multiple lives afforded to each character, meaning we get to see everyone “die” at least once, sometimes in amusing ways (“Professor Oberon”, for example, gets devoured by a hippo shortly after arrival).  The revamped game also doesn’t waste time.  Rather than spewing out random animals one at a time, this time it cuts straight to the chase, sucking everyone inside and keeping them there until they complete their quest.  Jake Kasdan (son of Lawrence) keeps things moving along at a breezy pace.  The CGI isn’t the best around, but it’s good enough to get the job done.  As “sequels” go, this is of the indirect variety; no characters from the original show up unless one counts the game’s main “villain” Van Pelt, who’s played by a different actor and been rebooted into a different version, but there’s a direct name drop at one point.

Dwayne Johnson, Jack Black, and Kevin Hart wouldn’t ever be regarded as top-flight thespians, but this is the kind of light action-comedy romp where they can be effective, and they dive gamely into roles that give them a chance to do a little self-mockery.  There’s actually a little more acting required here than might be evident at first glance, as they and Karen Gillan have to basically play two characters at once, the game avatars, and the “real” versions stuck in bodies they’re not at home in.  It’s amusing to watch hulking, musclebound Johnson parodying himself by adopting the timid personality and body language of a skinny nerd who suddenly finds himself in an action hero body, and while I’m not generally a Jack Black fan, his impression of a teenage girl is both hilarious and spot-on.  Kevin Hart does his manic flustered shtick, and Karen Gillan gives Black Widow some competition among ass-kicking redheads, but the top marks for comedy go to Johnson and especially Black.  No one else gets much to do.  Alex Wolff, Madison Iseman, Morgan Turner, and Ser’Darius Blain get just enough screentime to effectively establish the personalities that get carried over in different bodies with Johnson, Gillan, Black, and Hart, although they don’t show up again until the last few minutes.  Nick Jonas is in effective enough “action sidekick” mode, Bobby Cannavale is only adequate as the generic “boss” villain, and there’s throwaway bit parts from Tim Matheson and Colin Hanks.

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle isn’t a “great” movie, or even a great action-comedy, but it’s an effective enough lightweight diversion that serves up a breezy pace and whose comedy has a little more wit than one might expect.  It might not linger long in the memory once it’s over, but it’s a good time in the moment.

* * 1/2

 

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