“JUMANJI: WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE” — 3 stars — Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Jack Black, Karen Gillan, Nick Jonas; PG-13 (adventure action, suggestive content and some language); in general release
“Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” feels like a mashup of “The Breakfast Club,” “Tron” and an old Tarzan movie. It’s a fun and exciting adventure that isn’t quite perfect for the whole family, but should be entertaining for adults and teens.
Jake Kasdan’s “Welcome to the Jungle” is a loose sequel to 1995’s original film about a magic board game that sucks its players into a virtual reality that feels a little too real. After a quick prologue that shows the game morph into a video game console, we jump into the present day, where we meet four teenagers who are about to serve some unforgettable time in detention.
Spencer (Alex Wolff) is the curly-haired nerd who struggles talking to girls and is instead stuck writing papers for jocks such as Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain). Spencer and Fridge actually used to be best friends, but now Fridge is more focused on maintaining his image and staying on the football team.
Martha (Morgan Turner) is just trying to survive high school, and she’s maybe a little too smart for her own good. If at all possible, she’d like to steer clear of divas such as Bethany (Madison Iseman), the drama queen poster child for self-obsessed social media teens.
An assortment of gaffes land the group in detention, where they discover a dusty old video game console. After the teenagers fire up the console and choose their characters, the console sucks them into the magical jungle world of Jumanji, where, as real-life avatars of their game characters, they are tasked with delivering a sacred jewel to a giant stone jaguar before they are apprehended by a villain named Van Pelt (Bobby Cannavale).
To be successful, the characters will have to learn to coordinate their assigned skills and avoid danger, since each one only has three “lives” to work with. Spencer is projected into the body of Dr. Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson), a buffed-out he-man whose trademark courage is a tough sell for the awkward teen. Fridge goes from high school football superstar to Bravestone’s more compact sidekick Franklin Finbar (Kevin Hart) and timid Martha finds herself in short shorts and a belly shirt as the kung-fu fighting femme fatale Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan).
Everyone is feeling the strain of their new circumstances, but none of them have it as rough as poor Bethany, who lands in the portly, middle-aged body of Professor Shelly Oberon (Jack Black).
This avatar dynamic contributes to making “Welcome to the Jungle” one of the more enjoyable action films of recent memory. All four leads are strong, and it’s fun to watch them riffing on their usual MOs. Johnson has to leave his typical bravado aside and channel an insecure teen, while Gillan is very funny as her Martha struggles to adapt to a new body. Black jumps headfirst into his impression of a bratty teenage girl, and only Hart feels like he’s playing a familiar character.
The humor comes easily, with plenty of one-liners and running gags, such as a bit about Bravestone’s “smoldering intensity” skill or Finbar’s weakness for cake. Combined with exciting action scenes, the character interplay leads to some poignant messaging as the different characters learn about who they really are.
The only real downside to “Welcome to the Jungle” is that Kasdan didn’t deliver the film a more family-friendly PG rating. It's difficult to find genuinely funny, exciting live-action films for the whole family, and “Welcome to the Jungle's" more adult humor — i.e. Bethany dealing with her new anatomy — will likely keep younger kids out of its loop.
Still, for its target audience, “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” should provide an entertaining combination of character, action and humor, and probably leave parents wishing real video games gave their kids this much exercise.
“Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” is rated PG-13 for adventure action, suggestive content and some language; running time: 119 minutes.