Reviewed by GREG KING

Director: Jake Kasdan

Stars: Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Jack Black, Karen Gillan, Bobby Cannavale, Nick Jonas, Alex Wolff, Ser’Darius Blain, Madison Iseman, Morgan Turner, Colin Hanks.

Not quite a remake of the Joe Johnston directed 1995 film that starred Robin Williams, but rather a lively reboot and an attempt to kickstart a potential new franchise. The original Jumanji was based on the illustrated book written in 1981 by Chris Van Allsburg, who also wrote The Polar Express and Zathura, which shared a few similar themes. In the 1995 version, two kids played the board game and released a man who had been trapped inside the game for 26 years. This new take on the material has been written by Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers (Spiderman: Homecoming, etc) with Scott Rosenberg (one of the great action films of the 90s with Con Air, etc) and Jeff Pinkner (The Dark Tower, etc). And instead of bringing the jungle into the real world, this time around the central characters are transported into the jungle, giving the material a different vibe.

This version starts off almost like The Breakfast Club, with four high school students given Saturday detention. While cleaning up an old storage area and removing staples from old magazines, the four stumble across an old video game console. Out of curiosity they fire it up. They each chose an avatar from the game, and are then mysteriously sucked into the game.

The nerdy Spencer (Alex Wolff, from Patriot’s Day, etc) is transformed into the muscular, tattooed and rugged adventurous archaeologist Dr Smolder Bravestone. Football jock Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain) is transformed into the cowardly and continually whining zoologist Franklin Finbar (Kevin Hart). Narcissistic and self-centred Bethany (Madison Iseman), who virtually lives her life via Instagram, is transformed into the overweight bespectacled cartographer Shelly Oberon (and this character is the source of much of the humour). And awkward and shy Martha (Morgan Turner, who resembles a young Jennifer Jason Leigh at times) is transformed into the kick ass action heroine Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan, from Guardians Of The Galaxy 2, etc) who comes across like a Lara Croft-type character.

This quartet of misfits find themselves playing for life and death stakes deep in the heart of a jungle setting. The only way to win the game and return to the real world is by returning a jewel to a jaguar sculpture deep in the jungle. Each of the players has their own special skills and talent s which will be put to good use during the game. However, each player is also granted three lives, but if they lose all three then they perish. Along the way they also learn some valuable life lessons.

The action unfolds like a video game itself, with various challenges and degrees of difficulties, and there are numerous sly digs at video game conventions. They also face a number of dangers – from vicious creatures to the villainous Van Pelt (Bobby Cannavale, from Blue Jasmine, etc), a one-dimensional insect-infested power-hungry explorer who tries to prevent our heroes from succeeding in their quest. The quarrelsome quartet soon learn that they have to work together in order to survive the game and its various challenges. During their journey they also discover pilot Jefferson McDonough (Nick Jonas), who has been stranded in the game for twenty years.

Director Jake Kasdan (Bad Teacher, etc) is the son of legendary filmmaker Lawrence Kasdan (The Big Chill, etc), and he keeps things moving at a face pace throughout. There are numerous sly references and visual clues to the original Jumanji which adds to a sense of continuity, including references to Williams’ character and a stampeding herd of rhinoceroses. The film has been shot by Hungarian cinematographer Gyula Pados (The Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials, etc) and looks good. However, some of the special effects and visuals are a little underwhelming.

This is Johnson’s second film with the title Welcome To The Jungle, following 2003’s The Rundown, which had been retitled in some countries. Johnson and his easy-going style and charisma is a good fit for light weight action comedies like this, and he seems to have fun playing around with his macho screen persona and there is plenty of self-deprecating humour at his expense. He appears far more comfortable with the demands of his character here than he did in the recent disastrous misfire of Baywatch. The film is mainly a showcase for Johnson, and he gets to perform many heroic deeds and eye-opening stunts.

Motor mouthed comic Hart is still one of the most annoying actors around, and his shrill and grating style is a good fit for the character of Finbar here. Hart and Johnson shared a great if unexpected chemistry in last year’s action comedy Central Intelligence, but here their rapport never rises to the same heights. Black has a lot of fun portraying a vacuous 16-year old girl trapped in a man’s body. Gillan’s kick arse heroin thankfully tempers the overdose of testosterone that suffuses much of the improbable action with her skill at “dance fighting.” The body swap comedy provides some great laughs, but some of the jokes become a little repetitive.

Jumanji: Welcome To The Jungle is an enjoyable enough romp that doesn’t take itself too serious and it doesn’t tarnish the memories of the original. And as the jungle drums once again fade away, the film leaves the way open for another sequel, as the premise behind the game itself is rife with possibilities and open to interpretations and other exotic settings. And given its success at the box office, that is not beyond the realms of possibility.


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