Movie Review: “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” (PG-13)
If you can get past a generic subtitle whose sole purpose seems to be the assurance that the iconic Guns N’ Roses tune will appear on the soundtrack, “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” is one of the most pleasant surprises of the holiday season. It’s a movie that causes eye-rolling at the mere mention of it, and yet, again, this high-concept comedy defies the odds and carves out its own niche, all while paying homage to a bit of an overrated Robin Williams vehicle from over 20 years ago.
In “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle,” five teens from different social cliques get into trouble at school, and faster than you can say “The Breakfast Club,” these bummed-out students find themselves in detention. While serving punishment in the school basement, nerdy Spencer (Alex Wolff), athlete Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain), spoiled Bethany (Madison Iseman), and introverted Martha (Morgan Turner) come across an old-school video game console, and rather than de-stapling magazines as they’ve been instructed to do, they opt to get their game on.
As fate would have it, this is no ordinary game. In the vein of “Tron,” Spencer, Fridge, Bethany, and Martha are pulled into the action but after they are magically zapped into a “Jumanji” jungle adventure, they also quickly discover that it isn’t only the environment that’s changed. So have they! And their in-game avatars couldn’t be any different from their real-world selves. Ultimately, these individuals will have to put aside their petty differences and work together in an effort to get back to the real world.
For the most part, it works, thanks mostly to high-energy antics, Jake Kasdan’s uptempo direction, and wonderful cast chemistry amongst the quartet lead of avatars played by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Kevin Hart, Karen Gillan, and Jack Black. While it could be argued that Johnson and Hart are merely playing themselves, that’s not an entirely fair assumption. Well, it is a bit where motormouth Hart is concerned, but he’s still pretty funny here. As for Johnson, he’s charming, charismatic, and likable, and one might get a sense that he did actually study his teen counterpart, Wolff, a bit before jumping into action. Likewise, Gillan brings a sweetness and an awkward sensibility that perfectly complements Turner.
Of the leads, it’s Black who emerges as the biggest scene stealer as Bethany, a bratty and entitled teen girl trapped in a middle-aged man’s body. It’s obvious schtick, and we’ve seen the body-switcharoo gimmick countless times before, but Black delivers in a big way, doing some of his strongest pure comical work since “Tropic Thunder.”
As for the adventure itself, it’s a lot of fun, even if it does tend to get bogged down by some sub-par CG and one two many bathroom jokes. Fittingly, the environment feels like something out of “Jurassic Park” or an Indiana Jones movie, and that should come as no surprise as director Kasdan is the son of “Raiders of the Lost Ark” co-writer Lawrence Kasdan. The storyteller behind the underrated gem “Zero Effect” and the righteously hilarious musician biopic parody “Walk Hard” keeps the jokes, role-reversal gags, and thrills coming at a quick clip, and it’s clear that he’s inherited his keen sense of timing from his equally talented father.
In addition to bringing humor and action to the table, “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” is surprisingly charming and sweet. These kids actually learn thing or two about themselves and one another during their wacky adventure. But as characters, they’re never forced to sacrifice their individuality. They simply become more mature versions of who they already are.
The biggest gripe one might sling at this take on “Jumanji” is the fashion in which Hart never really feels like his real-life counterpart. As Fridge, Hart is his crazed, manic self while Blain comes across as more reserved and low key. Of course, in a movie of this nature, not many folks will bat an eye at something so trivial, so perhaps bringing it up feels like a waste of time — especially when taking into consideration that as a whole, this is such a fun time at the movies. Seriously! “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” is quite the pleasant surprise.