A decent family film is nothing to sneeze out during holiday season – or any season, to be honest. And Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, a sequel no one asked for to the 1995 Robin Williams original as well as the animated TV series, has enough star power and comic zest to deliver a fun time at the movies. OK, just barely, but we’ll take what we can get. Instead of a board game as it was in Chris Van Allsburg’ original bestselling children’s book, Jumanji is now a videogame. Still a relic to the smartphone-addicted 2017 teens who find it in a storage closet at their high school, the game grabs the attention of this breakfast club of misfits. They are nerdy Spencer (Alex Wolff), football jock Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain), popular mean girl Bethany (Madison Iseman) and painfully shy Martha (Morgan Turner). Don’t get too used to them. As soon as they start playing the game, the quartet is sucked into a death-defying fantasy adventure. And not as themselves, but as the adult avatars they chose when they decided to sign on.
That means skinny Spencer morphs into Smolder Bravestone, the expedition leader played by Dwayne Johnson like the charmboy Rock he is. Gridiron giant Fridge is reduced to Kevin Hart-size as zoologist Moose Finbar, portrayed by good-sport Hart himself. As for introverted Martha, she’s now Ruby Roundhouse, allowing the talented Karen Gillan to resent being objectified in jungle-inappropriate shorts and halter top. Bethany has it even worse: she’s been transformed into Professor Shelly Oberon, a middle-aged schlub in the person of Jack Black. All the actors get in their licks, but Black steals every scene he’s in as a teen hottie who’s creeped out by her fate, but finds compensations (it’s so much easier to pee with a penis). Black is expectedly hilarious, but the beauty part of his performance is that, instead of exaggerating or patronizing this Instagram princess, he finds her vulnerable heart.
That’s the setup in the script it took four screenwriters to concoct. But director Jake Kasdan keeps the action humming as the characters learn important life lessons while dodging bodily injury as they attempt to restore the emerald eye of a jaguar carved into a mountaintop. Death doesn’t scare our heroes too much, mostly because game rules allow each to die three times before it’s really Game Over. Computer-generated effects work overtime to scare up excitement, but this movie finds it sweet spot in comedy, notably when Ruby shows her skills at “dance fighting.” Did I mention that Nick Jonas and Bobby Cannavale also show up? Better keep their roles spoiler-free, since genuine surprises are in short supply. This updated Jumanji can’t outrun the clichés on its tail, but its puppy-eagerness to please is hard to resist.