Don’t consider “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” a straight remake of the 1995 Robin Williams board game adventure film. This is more of spiritual sequel or reimagining. If it was a jungle in there for Williams, it’s a jungle out there for Dwayne Johnson and pals in this video game-inspired romp directed by Jake Kasdan.
No longer is Jumanji a simple board game where a roll of the dice can unleash a supernatural jungle explosion at home. This time around, Jumanji is an old video game console and cartridge dusted off by a motley crew of high schoolers stuck with detention one afternoon.
The breakfast club fires it up, selecting their avatars. Neurotic nerd Spencer (Alex Wolff) chooses Dr. Smolder Bravestone, hulking jock Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain) picks zoologist Moose Finbar, weirdo smarty-pants Martha (Morgan Turner) is Ruby Roundhouse, while the selfie-obsessed Bethany (Madison Iseman) goes for the “curvy cartographer” Prof. Shelly Oberon.
In a gust of goldish-green dust, the teens are vaporized into the video game world of Jumanji, and into their respective physical game forms. Spencer inhabits the muscle-bound bod of Dwayne Johnson, Fridge becomes the diminutive Kevin Hart, Martha gets a Lara Croft-style wardrobe modeled by Karen Gillan, while Bethany turns into Jack Black. It’s a transformation that’s strangely intriguing for her.
Billed as an adventure-comedy, the latter is limited to a single premise relying on physical stereotypes and the subversion of said stereotypes. But thanks to impeccable casting and fun performances, that joke is executed well. Black, in particular, is genius in his expression of the annoying, self-obsessed teen hottie, and Johnson has always had a knack for playing against type. He gives Spencer a sense of self-effacing insecurity despite his gargantuan biceps.
Once inside the game, it’s a fairly standard quest: The group has to replace a gem that’s been stolen from the eye of a giant jaguar statue that watches over the jungle. That will break the curse perpetuated by Bravestone’s former partner, Van Pelt (Bobby Cannavale), who has stolen the jewel and become greedy with the power to rule all creatures of the jungle. Cannavale pitches his performance somewhere between Gollum from “Lord of the Rings” and Eddie Redmayne in “Jupiter Ascending,” all hoarse whispers, his skin crawling with scorpions and centipedes.
The video game device offers a few wrinkles the crew has to contend with, including non-player characters who guide their way but parrot their instructional speeches over and over like automatons. There also are levels to conquer before they move on. The camera often zooms out to show us a map, detailing where they have to go. But mostly, the action is a lot of running, jumping, yelling and falling. It all becomes increasingly muddy, especially during a wild climax involving a motorcycle ride up the face of a mountain.
All of that is easy enough to overlook when we like the characters so much. The cognitive dissonance of these characters is what gives “Jumanji” its humor, and it relies on the star personas of Johnson, Hart, Black and Gillan. But Kasdan does the work to introduce these characters, so we get to know them first. It’s as if a John Hughes movie were suddenly dropped into an Indiana Jones film, and thanks to these actors, that combination works.