Game On

New ‘Jumanji’ is full of fun thanks to comedic all-star cast

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Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle
Starring Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Jack Black & Karen Gillan
Directed by Jake Kasdan
PG-13

As a kid, I really thought it would be fun to be game-size.

I wanted to zoom around the Monopoly board in that teeny silver racecar. I wished I could be the diver in Mousetrap—I’ll bet I could hit that dang little bucket a lot more consistently than he ever did. And I longed to get in the ring with the Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots, just to land a couple of good, clean uppercuts of my own.

And who wouldn’t want to romp for a day around the Gumdrop Mountain, Peppermint Stick Forest and the Lollypop Woods of Candyland?!

But Jumanji showed just how dangerous really getting into a game might be. That 1995 movie, based on a fictional jungle adventure board game, was about a boy who got sucked into it and was trapped there for more than 25 years. And when he finally got free as a grownup (played by Robin Williams) and returned to the real world, wild animals were set loose, too, and time got all wonky.

The new Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle picks up the theme and elements of the first movie and gives them an all-star, big-budget, high-tech Hollywood upgrade as it ensnares a group of new, modern players—and plunges audiences deep into the game they never really got to see in the first film.

When the wayward paths of four teenagers—nerdy germaphobe Spencer (Alex Wolff), beefy jock Fridge (Ser’Darius Bain), shy introvert Martha (Morgan Turner) and narcissistic hottie Bethany (Madison Iseman)—converge in detention, they discover an “ancient” 1990s-style game console in the cluttered supply room of their high school. They fire it up on a handy TV set and choose avatar players just for kicks.

Then it’s Breakfast Club meets Twilight Zone as whoosh!, just like that, they’re whisked to the steamy jungle world of Jumanji, where they’re confused, horrified—and in some cases, intrigued—to find out they’ve been transformed into the players they just picked, randomly, sight unseen.

JumanjiFor maximum comedic effect, nerdy, scrawny Spencer is now brawny expedition leader Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson). Fridge, the school’s hunky star football player, has become pipsqueak zoologist Moose Finbar (Kevin Hart). Wallflower Martha is sexy Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan, from Guardians of the Galaxy and TV’s Dr. Who), a kick-ass martial-arts expert. And self-absorbed Bethany is horrified to discover she’s been turned into a pudgy, middle-aged man, Professor Shelly Oberon (Jack Black).

The only way to get back to their real bodies, and the real world, is to complete the game. To do that, there’s a dangerous bit of Indiana Jones-ish adventure business about a Jaguar Shrine and the stolen Jewel of Jumanji, and Bobby Cannavale hamming it up as the villainous John Hardin Van Pelt, the game’s antagonist, whose all-consuming greed melded him with the jungle—and made his body a host for all kinds of skin-crawling, creepy things.

1193687 - JumanjiBravestone, Moose, Ruby and Professor Oberon have to put together a map and dodge leaping alligators, rampaging rhinos, hungry, hungry hippos, hissing snakes and a gang of ninja bikers. The on-location Hawaii settings are lush and gorgeous. Johnson hangs out of a helicopter zooming though a canyon and leans onto the top to fix its defective rotor, so it won’t crash into a mountain ahead. Whew!

But mostly the movie hinges on the ever-percolating comedic chemistry of Johnson, Hart and Black, playing characters-within-characters as they adjust to their Jumanji bodies. Black gets lots of laughs channeling his inner Brittany as he/she obsesses about not having her iPhone, teaching Martha/Ruby how to flirt as a weapon and discovering a certain, ahem,  accessory that comes with her new male physique.

The motor-mouthed Hart is a fountain of funny, and Johnson—an international box-office powerhouse—can charm the camera with just the tilt of an eyebrow.

Director Jake Kasden, whose resume includes Bad Teacher 2 and several TV shows, including episodes of New Girl, Fresh Off the Boat and Ben and Kate, gets traction with familiar videogame conventions as the characters’ strengths and weaknesses are revealed, and their realization that they only have three “lives” inside the game before it’s “game over” for realz.

There’s a nice, sentimental nod to the late Robin Williams’ character from the original movie when the new players meet another player (Nick Jonas) who’s been marooned in the game for…well, a long time.

The characters learn some lessons about acceptance, sacrifice, cooperation and how you can’t judge by appearances. And they understand what their high school principal (Marc Evan Jackson, from Brooklyn Nine-Nine) meant when he told them, “You get one life; decide how you are going to spend it.”

“This world swallows up kids like you,” Spencer is warned, ominously enough, earlier in the film. Games can be swallow you up, too, if you let yourself get sucked into them, literally or psychologically. This game turns out to be a big-star blast, especially when it all wraps up, to the Guns N’ Roses tune noted in the title. Sometimes silly, often frantic and ultimately surprisingly sweet, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is a rollicking reminder that games are for meant for having fun—and there’s more than one kind of winner. Game on!

In theaters Dec. 20, 2017 

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