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— Zoe Saldana, Star Trek

MRQE Top Critic

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It’s goofy fluff, but Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle has enough heart to earn a recommendation.

Changing Times

Welcome to the jungle
Welcome to the jungle

Note that subtitle: Welcome to the Jungle. It’s a sure sign the studio execs expect to turn this remake into a whole series of game-themed movies.

And to think it all started as a National Book Award-winning children’s book back in 1981. Children still played board games back then (and read books). And, in 1995, there was the big-screen, big-budget movie adaptation starring Robin Williams. Kids still played some board games — and a few still read books.

Well, this remake — and the term “remake” is used loosely; it’s more like a complete reinvention — actually starts in 1996 with the classic wooden board game mysteriously appearing on a beach. When given to a kid named Alex, he dismisses it. “Who plays board games anymore?” he quips. (For that matter, who reads books anymore?)

Maybe it’s a morphing wonder, or maybe it’s simply lazy storytelling, but during the night, the seemingly insulted board game transforms itself with some rattling and glowing. When Alex opens the board game, he doesn’t see the familiar game pieces and playing board. Instead, a then-modern game cartridge awaits, ready to be plugged into his console.

Alex gets sucked in — a nice metaphor for the addictive nature of higher-quality video games. And he’s never heard from again.

Fast forward to 2017 and this Jumanji turns into a bit of a John Hughes tribute. A slew of disparate kids gets slapped with detention. While doing cleaning duty, they stumble on an old game console that somehow made its way into the school, complete with one game cartridge: Jumanji. Again, kinda lazy storytelling, but it’s all technicalities to get to the meat (and by meat, that’d be The Rock) of the story.

Well, the term “meat” is also relative. It’s more like 40% lean ground beef. Filet mignon it’s not.

Similar Rules

In its new form, Jumanji is an action video game that plays off all the modern gaming tropes. There are cut scenes of exposition. Some characters are given minimal coding and just enough situational awareness to spit out the same lines of dialogue time and again. And, of course, there’s the notion of gaming “lives.” They’re designated like tattoos on the forearm. Each player starts with three lives and… well… C’mon. There’s a weak attempt at making this seem like a significant life-threatening factor, but Welcome to the Jungle is much more about the laughs than the dangers.

Each character has certain strengths and weaknesses, with the idea being it takes a team to accomplish the ultimate mission. In this case, the four teenagers turned into their older, wiser gaming avatars need to return a stolen jewel to a jaguar-shaped mountain and thereby restore order to the land of Jumanji.

Those avatars feature Spencer (Dwayne Johnson, Moana). Normally, he’d be a globetrotting adventurer, but given he’s being “played” by a nerdy teenager, he has to deal with moments of self-doubt and vulnerability. His weakness? His strength. Meaning he has no weaknesses.

Bethany (Jack Black, School of Rock) is a middle-aged, overweight scientist who, back in the real world, is a self-absorbed, social media-savvy teenage girl. Fridge (Kevin Hart, Central Intelligence) is Spencer’s friend and Sherpa; back “home,” he’s a high school football star and the verge of flunking out. Fridge’s main weakness is cake. Yeah. He blows up but good. Life lost, but at least it’s a tasty end.

And there’s Martha (Karen Gillan, Guardians of the Galaxy). She’s basically Lara Croft, as played by a detached, semi-nerdy teenage girl. Her skills include dance fighting.

Modern Sensibilities

Once the Rock, Black, Hart and Gillan enter the picture, the pace and the fun pick up.

The message of teamwork plays well, and so does a message about having one life to live. It’s not as soapy as it sounds. The fuller meaning is, since you only live once, you should pick an interesting life, one worth living. A lot of that is brought to the fore by way of Alex’s avatar, found while Spencer and the gang attempt to fulfill their mission. Alex’s avatar, Jefferson “Seaplane” McDonough (Nick Jonas of the Jonas Brothers boy band), has no sense of the passage of some 20 years, having been stuck in the video game this whole time. His experience is also a throwback to Robin Williams’ character in the original flick.

Thanks to the twist of a hot little teenage girl being embodied by Jack Black (who is decidedly none of those things), there’s the inevitable innuendos that push Welcome to the Jungle further into PG-13 territory. Otherwise, it’s a largely harmless entertainment that — much like the game’s avatars — allows the main stars to play to their strengths and ham it up. When those moments happen, it’s nothing less than a crowd pleaser.

Given the pedigree of the writers — with Spider-Man: Homecoming, The LEGO Batman Movie, High Fidelity and TV’s Lost among their collective credits — and director Jake Kasdan (Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story), there’s a pang of disappointment the material doesn’t take a higher road, but ultimately this is an entertainment that works.

And who knows. Maybe the inevitable sequel will power-up the smarts.