‘Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle’ Film Review: A Mainstream Moviegoing Miracle

Dwayne Johnson, Karen Gillan, Kevin Hart and Jack Black get stuck in the game but not in a rut

Jumanji Welcome to the Jungle
Frank Masi/Sony Pictures

You’ve heard the one about the jock (Ser’Darius Blain, “Camp X-Ray”), the brain (Alex Wolff, “My Friend Dahmer”), the loner (Morgan Turner, “Wonderstruck”), and the princess (Madison Iseman, “Still the King”) saddled with detention. But until now you didn’t know the high-concept version that involves them getting lost in the jungle, switching bodies, outrunning motorcycle ninjas or being attacked by hungry, hungry hippos.

As premises for a combination sequel-reboot to 1995’s adventure “Jumanji” go, it’s the sort of thing could fail very badly. Happy news, then: “Jumanji: Welcome to The Jungle” is the Christmas tentpole release that aims to please and succeeds, a funny family entertainment product that subverts more expectations than it was obligated to contractually.

Picking up in 1996 where the original left off, the attention-starved, drums-blazing board game remains half-buried in sand on a beach. After transforming itself into a video-game cartridge, it chooses another teenage victim to whisk off to a place outside of time and space. (This malicious software holds its players hostage with no concern for how long they’re gone, and that hapless player will show up again later in what amounts to a casting spoiler.)

Eventually the outdated cartridge lands in a high school storage room for the new Breakfast Clubbers to find and play. Avatars chosen, the kids disintegrate into the game’s treacherous jungle, their bodies switch to those of Dwayne Johnson, Karen Gillan, Kevin Hart, and Jack Black, and they’re given clues to find their way out.

Their mission is barely important, of course, involving Getting The Thing and Taking It To The Place and Breaking The Curse. You don’t care. Neither does the film. A fresh curse could be broken every 15 minutes and the game would keep banging its own drum for future players and, if Sony has its way, sequels. What’s on this movie’s mind is pretty simple: near-death scrapes, actual deaths and rebirths (this game has arbitrary rules regarding what it means to die), and taking a lot of goofy jabs at the camp qualities of both contemporary video games and old-fashioned adventure movie tropes.

Of equal importance here is the turning upside down of teenage stereotypes, as Johnson manifests adolescent nerdiness in the warrior body of a former pro wrestler, Gillan physically critiques her gaming-cliché halter top with an irritated scoff and lots of awkward charm, and Black, hilariously, holds steady as a hair-flipping cheerleader who discovers how weird it is to suddenly be in possession of a very specific male accessory. Hart just seems to shriek a lot, but that’s the cultural contribution we’ve all decided to pay him to do, so it’s fine. This “Jumanji” is more committed to the bit than to the game.

The effect of this, for better or worse, is a removal of the heart of sorrow and loss, the longing to go home, that informed the original film’s story. It’s a tradeoff that will matter to some, perhaps, but this update is having none of the original’s melancholy tone; there are jokes to be made at the 1996 player’s expense, helicopters that need to be flown sideways and bad guys that need be taken out with something called “dance fighting.”

Director Jake Kasdan (“Bad Teacher”) and screenwriting quartet Chris McKenna, Jeff Pinkner, Scott Rosenberg, and Erik Sommers, working from the original book by Chris Van Allsburg, know the task at hand is to make a family action-adventure vehicle for some big screen names, one that bangs and clangs cheerfully until the end. The multiplexes are littered with failed attempts at this very thing, a task so much harder than it looks, which means that the fact that it comes together with as much charm as it does is something of a mainstream moviegoing miracle.

It’s a child-friendly nod to the visual and emotional aesthetics of Edgar Wright’s nervy “Scott Pilgrim vs the World,” one where the cranky teenage characters endure the literal externalizing of their strengths and weaknesses, something no high school sophomore wants broadcast to passersby. They run headlong into glitchy game characters, parent-like obstacles that repeatedly spout the same greetings and admonitions on an endless loop. They let their outsize feelings get in the way of their own progress. In other words, just like all nascent adults, they play to lose.

But this isn’t the place for any deeper consideration of adolescent self-sabotage or an investigation of what it means for the dangerous outside world to eat you up and spit you out; a happy ending must be delivered, one that swaps true feeling for a jokey “Wizard of Oz” reference. That’s OK. Sometimes there’s a place for a comforting game where, no matter how badly you play, you don’t wind up doomed.