Don’t consider “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” a straight remake of the 1995 Robin Williams board game adventure film. It’s more of a spiritual sequel or reimagining, loosely based on the same Chris Van Allsburg book. 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 in the living room. This time around, “Jumanji” is an old video game console and cartridge dusted off by a mismatched group 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 smartypants Martha (Morgan Turner) is Ruby Roundhouse; while the selfie-obsessed Bethany (Madison Iseman) goes for the “curvy cartographer” Professor 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, 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.
“Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” is a one-joke movie, relying on the subversion of physical stereotypes, but thanks to impeccable casting and fun performances, that joke is very well-executed. 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: In order to break the curse perpetuated by Bravestone's former partner, Van Pelt (Bobby Cannavale), the group has to replace a gem from the eye of a giant jaguar statue that watches over the jungle. Power-hungry Van Pelt stole the jewel to rule all the 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 — non-player guides who parrot their instructional speeches over and over like automatons, and different levels the crew must achieve before moving on to the next. The camera often zooms out to show us a saga map, detailing where the players have to go. But mostly, the action of “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” 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 chaos is easy enough to overlook when we like the characters so much. Kasdan and screenwriters Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers, Scott Rosenberg and Jeff Pinkner do the work to introduce these characters, so we get to know them first. Their cognitive dissonance is what gives “Jumanji” its humor, and the film relies on the star personas of Johnson, Hart, Black and Gillan to deliver it. It's as if the cast of a John Hughes movie were suddenly dropped into an Indiana Jones film, and thanks to these actors, that combination works.
‘Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle'
Rated: PG-13, for adventure action, suggestive content and some language
Running time: 1 hour, 59 minutes
Playing: In general release