Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: A group of high school kids representing different archetypes (the brain, the princess, the basket case, and so on) meet in detention and, a few hours later, discover that they’re not so different after all. Now stop me if you’ve heard this one before: A seemingly harmless game sucks its players into a magically perilous jungle world of wild flora and rampaging animals, ultimately leading to valuable life lessons. Congratulations, you’ve not only seen 1985’s The Breakfast Club and 1995’s Jumanji, you’ve also already seen the latest Hollywood intellectual-property retread/reboot no one knew they were asking for. Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is a film as busy as a mediocre video game and as familiar and by-the-numbers as a dozen other brand-recognition titles that have recently trundled off the Tinseltown widget assembly line.
For fans of Robin Williams’ original Jumanji (yes, they exist), version 2.0 has just enough mild gags and frenetic adventure set pieces to tap into the brain’s nostalgia center. The new twist, however, comes from its box office-proven cast, which includes Jack Black, Kevin Hart, and Guardians of the Galaxy’s Karen Gillan. But the real draw here, of course, is Dwayne Johnson, who over the past few years, has become Hollywood’s unlikeliest (and highest compensated) A-list star. The artist formerly known as The Rock is undeniably charming, eminently likable, and disarmingly gifted with an eyebrow-cocked one-liner (he’s Roger Moore in the body of Lou Ferrigno), but I wish he’d start choosing his projects a little more judiciously. Welcome to the Jungle is no doubt a step up from this summer’s Baywatch, but it’s a pretty small step.
The film kicks off in 1996, when a father jogging on the beach discovers a washed-up board game buried in the sand. He gifts it to his teenage son, who initially dismisses the offering, sneering, “Who plays board games anymore?” before returning to his shoot-em-up video game. But the next morning, the game has transformed into a glowing green video-cartridge accompanied by enticing jungle drums. He pops it in and gets consumed by it. Literally. Cut to two decades later, and we meet our cast of high school teens. There’s the nerdy and meek Spencer (Alex Wolff), the super-sized jock ‘Fridge’ (Ser’Darius Blain), the selfie-obsessed popular girl Bethany (Madison Iseman), and the bookishly awkward Ally Sheedy-type Martha (Morgan Turner). These four meet up in detention for various infractions, where they stumble upon an archaic, confiscated video game console and the Jumanji game cartridge. They boot it up and…whoosh…they find themselves transported to the jungle in the bodies of their on-screen avatars.
The joke here — and I use the term loosely — is that the nerdy guy now inhabits the body of Johnson’s Dr. Smolder Bravestone. The beefy jock is now Hart’s pint-sized scaredy cat Moose Finbar. The Sheedy-ish one is now Gillan’s sexy, Lara Croft butt-kicking babe Ruby Roundhouse. And the vain, millennial beauty queen is now…Black’s fey, middle-aged, pot-bellied Professor Shelly Oberon. The fact that she now has a penis is considered the height of hilarity. After some introductory exposition in the form of a safari guide named Nigel (Flight of the Conchords’ Rhys Darby), our four disembodied heroes are tasked with recovering a stolen green jewel and going through a series of deadly labors in order to restore the softball-sized gem to a giant Jaguar statue on the tropical island while outrunning a cartoon villain played by a hambone Bobby Cannavale, who acts like he just tied a ‘20s movie damsel to the railroad tracks. The group is informed that once they complete their quest, they can return to their old bodies and previous, angsty lives.
The film’s follow-the-map and solve-the-riddle odyssey is goosed along by Hart’s better-than-the-rest-of-the-movie motormouth shtick. And Johnson’s nerd-trapped-in-a-superhero-body routine appears more effortless than it must have been. But the whole Jack Black-as-shallow-valley girl gambit is both excruciating and exhausting (not to mention, embarrassingly retrograde). As for Gillan, I’m not sure what director Jake Kasden was going for by dolling the actress up in skimpy outfits and having one of her primary skills be her ability to distract bad guys by being a flirty vixen, but it seems several decades out of date. I don’t want to sound like a joyless crank. Some of this is kind of amusing. But the laughs are strictly of the lowest-hanging-fruit variety. In a sidenote, the Hawaii locations look nice.
The underlying message of the film is that you can’t judge a book by its cover. That these reluctant partners have to work through their differences and become a team. It’s hard to argue with something as well-intentioned as that. But it’s fairly banal, and nothing you haven’t seen (done better) a thousand times before, minus the giant CGI hippos and marauding elephants. Whenever the movie tiptoes up to actually being deeper and funnier and more clever than that, it seems to lose its nerve and doubles down on anvil-to-the-skull slapstick. Welcome to the Jungle isn’t a bad movie. It’s a diverting, mildly amusing, competent bit of big-budget studio product. And maybe those are the stakes we’re now playing for these days. But in the process it manages to pull off something I once would have thought was impossible: It makes the original Jumanji look like a beloved cinema classic. C