“Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” Movie Review


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     Arriving amongst a crowded holiday frame, Jake Kasdan’s “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” seems eager to earn its place as the go to family action adventure for those who have already seen “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” and have no interest in the many adult skewing titles joining the party as well.  And while this is essentially a sequel to 1995’s Robin Williams vehicle “Jumanji”, the similarities are scarce with Kasden and his screenwriters (Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers, Scott Rosenberg, Jeff Pinkner) taking the proceedings in another direction with a modern twist.  Kasden, who has mainly specialized in raunchy comedies, such as the hilarious musical spoof “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story” (2007), seems well within his league here, given the cast includes comedic powerhouses Kevin Hart and Jack Black, as well as the ever reliable Dwayne Johnson who has had no problem showing off his comic chops in between action films.  Rounding out the cast is Karen Gillan, ditching her Nebula makeup, and providing plenty of butt kicking moments opposite the rest of her all male counterparts.  The result isn’t exactly an original piece of filmmaking, but there is entertainment value for the younger target audience who likely hasn’t watched the films it borrows from and will get a kick out of the back and forth banter between the characters.

     The story begins in 1996 where a teen, who spends the majority of his existence playing video games in his bedroom, comes upon a board game called Jumanji of which he casts aside while exclaiming “Nobody plays board games anymore.”. But low and behold the board game transforms itself and suddenly becomes a game cartridge.  The exact kind of cartridge that fits the kid’s console.  So of course he gives it a try.  A decision that comes with the kind of consequences similar to the original film.  He is sucked into the game and never heard from again. 

     Fast forward to present day, where we meet four high school kids with very different backgrounds and personalities, who are put together in the same room as they serve detention for various wrongdoings detailed in earlier scenes.  Spencer (Alex Wolff) is the nerdy type looking for acceptance amongst the mainstream more popular groups in school.  His buddy, Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain), hangs out with Spencer only because he does his school work for him, thus allowing him to remain eligible to play football.  Martha (Morgan Turner) might be classified as nerdy too, but she doesn't even bother to socialize, instead relegating herself to the bleachers during PE class and keeping to herself.  The debutant of the group is Bethany (Madison Iseman), a wannabe starlet who represents her generation’s growing problem with extreme narcissism.  It’s a group of kids who would normally not be in the same room together, were it not for their punishment, but as you may figure, the entire scenario is about to change.

     Why it’s there in the first place is a convenient mystery, but the same console the young teen had in 1996 happens to be in the school store room where the group is working on a project they were given by the principal.  The Jumanji game is still inserted and there’s also four game controllers for the console (again, conveniently).  And so they plug it in and start playing, choosing the characters they will become while cynically observing the apparent age of the game and it’s lack of advanced graphics.  In an era where kids can’t get off their phones, Fridge can’t even identify the fact that he is holding a game console from the 90s.  It makes me wonder if kids even know what a book looks like these days.

     As you are likely to predict, the group is sucked into the game console and reappear within the game as the avatars they previously selected.  Spencer becomes Dwayne Johnson and is given a host of heroic skills.  Fridge becomes Kevin Hart and is shocked when he finds out his main function is to carry Spencer’s weapons in a backpack.  The quiet and shy Martha becomes Karen Gillan, with the ability to fight and take on the toughest of opponents.  And that leaves Bethany, who becomes Jack Black and provides some of the funniest moments of the film with the apparent gender reversal.  Kasden keeps them busy with what Spencer believes are various levels they must get through in order to get out of the game.  They are met early on by a character whose purpose is to brief them on their mission, something about returning a green jewel to the eye of a statue while being constantly chased by an underdeveloped and mostly unscary villain named Van Pelt (played by a miscast Bobby Cannavale).  Ultimately, if you put a fedora on Spencer, you might think this was a “Raiders of the Lost Ark” reboot, as the characters move about the jungle, hidden passage ways, old native temples, and other potential foils, including snakes, that will have you thinking of Spielberg’s films, as well as the ride at Disneyland.

     If the film has one strength, it’s the performances by Hart, Black, and Gillan as they channel high school versions of themselves, with Black taking it a step further personifying a female in a male’s body.  Nothing special comes from Johnson, who can play this type of role in his sleep, but together they play several of the scenes for well earned laughs.  It’s no surprise the director of “Bad Teacher” and “Sex Tape” would include a scene where one character has to teach the other how to pee with the male body she is currently occupying, but the scene works at the level it is meant to.  But ultimately, Kasden is forced to engage them in a number of action set pieces that take away from the comic momentum and simply don't measure up to the sequences we have seen in far better films this year.  And playing the ending as sentimental with the group coming of age as a result of their experience in the game is a little bit much, but you tend to go with it since the intention here is to have an entertaining time at the movies, only to forget about it once you leave the theater.  GRADE: C+