Is it possible that Sony greenlit Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle with the pitch that it’s The Breakfast Club set in a rainforest? Sure enough, a detentioned jock, nerd, princess, and outcast overcome their differences to battle a shared foe (a demonic explorer here, instead of good ol’ Assistant Principal Vernon), learning a little about themselves along the way. The only thing missing is the Judd Nelson fist pump at the end.
Don’t be put off, though. Jumanji actually works, landing as a very funny, terrific flick that the whole fam (minus the little ‘uns) can enjoy during the holiday break.
It’s billed as a sequel to the 1995 Robin Williams film, but save for the name of the game and a super-brief throwback to the original, there’s little bridging the two storylines. Instead we get a carbon copy of the plot, though the titular board game that sucked its players into a world of stampeding rhinoceroses (rhinoceri?) and trigger-happy big-game hunters has been updated to be an old-school video game the sucks its players into the fantasy world as game avatars. And that’s the clever little twist that gives the update its mojo.
Nerd Spencer (Alex Wolff) becomes Dwayne Johnsons’s Dr. Smolder Bravestone, Football stud “Fridge” (Ser’Darius Blain) gets downsized into the body of Kevin Hart’s zoologist “Mouse” Finbar, kick-ass commando Ruby Roundhouse (Karen GIllan) is the new body for Morgan Turner’s bookworm Martha, and (best yet) school Queen Bee Bethany (Madison Iseman) is magically transformed into the lumpy body of Jack Black’s Professor Oberon.
In lesser hands, it may not have worked, but the collection of comedic talent (Hart and Johnson got their chemistry going in last year’s great Central Intelligence) along with the smart screenplay by a gaggle of folks, including The Lego Batman Movie’s Chris McKenna, turn Jumanji into a rock-solid (or, um, Rock-solid?) success.
After a brief 1996-set prelude that shows the transformation of the board game into a video cartridge, we land in modern day, where the high-schoolers pass the time in detention by firing up what they think is a harmless retro game console. They choose their characters, press start, and the real adventure begins.
Their mission is some kind of irrelevant thing about a giant jewel, a jaguar statue, and outrunning Bobby Cannavale’s demonic explorer. The important thing is how they get through it, and the whole journey begins with the hilarious discovery scene as the kids come to grips with the bodies they’ve morphed into. The standout is Black, who looks like himself but is actually channeling the vapid Bethany; fortunately he avoids the mocking, imitation route and instead offers up a gut-busting performance as an entitled high school prom queen trapped in an unfortunate body. It’s a thing of beauty (particularly as she discovers her new anatomy) and only one of the many things that Jumanji does really, really well.
Director and co-writer Jack Kasdan, still trying to make up for 2014’s god-awful Sex Tape, keeps the action zipping along while also giving his actors plenty of time to riff off each other; it’s one of those films you just know the cast had a ball being a part of. And their feeling is infectious, inviting the audience along for a hella-fun ride.