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Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle takes an old concept in an appealing new direction

Physical comedy and a twist make for an easygoing, fun movie.

Kevin Hart, Karen Gillan, Jack Black, and Dwayne Johnson in Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle
Kevin Hart, Karen Gillan, Jack Black, and Dwayne Johnson in Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle.
Frank Masi/CTMG
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

The story of Jumanji, first told in a 1981 children’s book and then in a 1995 film, has remarkable staying power for its very simple concept: What if the board game you get totally absorbed in literally absorbed you?

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, however, is not a remake or even reboot of its earlier cousins. The basic concept remains, but the story has been reimagined — a gutsy move when revisiting a story starring someone as beloved and missed as the late Robin Williams.

Luckily, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle mostly pulls it off. A workmanlike comedy with some fun surprises hidden along the way, it’s a clever twist on the original that leaves that film intact, and a good-hearted coming-of-age story to boot, with a cast that commits wholeheartedly to its physical comedy.

The new Jumanji is linked to the old one only in its central concept

The old Jumanji was tied to a board game; now it’s a 1980s video game, housed on a cartridge that washes up on a beach in 1996 and lands in the hands of Alex (Nick Jonas), who sticks it in his console and promptly gets sucked in. Then, 20 years later, a group of teenagers — the standard assortment of nerd, jock, shy bookish girl, and queen bee who’s always glued to her phone — get stuck together in detention, Breakfast Club-style, and find the cartridge. They decide playing an old video game is better than cleaning up their school’s storage space, and select their characters from the menu: a zoologist, a cryptographer, a commando, and an explorer.

And then, of course, they suddenly find themselves dropped into a jungle. And in Freaky Friday style, all four teens have assumed the physique of the in-game characters they selected. The skinny nerd has transformed into a smoldering, ripped explorer (Dwayne Johnson); the jock has lost a foot and a half off his height and become the zoologist (Kevin Hart); the bookish girl has become the badass commando (Karen Gillan); and the queen bee, to her initial horror, is now a bearded, paunchy male cryptographer (Jack Black). (She becomes much more reconciled to her fate once she discovers the wonders of peeing standing up.)

A scene from Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle
The Rock, smoldering.

They are in the land of Jumanji, which operates by old-school video game rules. That means they have strengths and weakness assigned to their characters and must work together to reach their goals, which in typical video game style means deciphering clues, assembling objects, fighting villains, and overcoming various challenges. Secondary characters they encounter along the way act like video game characters as well, meaning they have a preset script, and can’t communicate at all beyond that script.

The main crew has to retrieve an item and put it in its place to save Jumanji and get out of the game, but that’s not really the point of Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle. Because the characters are actually teens in adult bodies, the film is more concerned with how their adventures will help them unlock some of the potential they’ve been keeping under wraps in the hotbed jungle of high school. Will they learn in time?

This Jumanji isn’t groundbreaking, but it’s a good time nonetheless

It’s a little schlocky, sure. But what elevates Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle beyond its premise is the performances. This cast is committed to these roles, especially The Rock, who seems to have trained all his life for the role of dweeb with massive biceps. Black, too, manages to play a teenage girl without denigrating teenage girls; the mannerisms are recognizable but not derogatory. And Gillan — who starred alongside John Cho on the short-lived and secretly brilliant 2014 sitcom Selfie — has always been a brilliantly physical comedian with impeccable delivery; if it took an action-comedy to let her do her thing on the big screen, then I’m fine with that.

a scene from Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle
They’re lost. Or are they?

Director Jake Kasdan is working from a screenplay credited to four writers: Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers (Spider-Man: Homecoming), Scott Rosenberg (Zoo), and Jeff Pinkner (Zoo, Fringe). That’s rarely a good sign, often indicating that the studio brought on more writers to fiddle with a script they weren’t sure about. But it mostly works in this case, and in the hands of Kasdan (who is mostly a TV director but also made the hilarious 2007 musical-biopic spoof Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story), it retains just enough of an unexpected off-kilter edge to make its jokes land.

And in 2017, a year that hasn’t yielded up many watchable non-superhero studio comedies (and even fewer that are suitable for families), that’s a boon. The Jumanji stories have always been about fantasy, about taking on a heroic role that shifts from make-believe to real, and discovering that the courage you needed to confront your fears was there all along. That appeal persists in this new installment, with enough good humor and winks at the audience to keep the whole thing moving along. Ground-breaking cinema, it is not — but a fun romp through the jungle never hurt anyone.

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle opens in theaters on December 20.

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