If you’re up for an adventurous board game, the imaginative “Jumanji” (1995) has been rebooted into an action-packed video game. In the original, comic Robin Williams had been trapped inside the terrifying game for decades. Rising teen star Kirsten Dunst was also a player at the special effects funhouse in Brantford, New Hampshire.
A little over 20 years later, a group of disconnected high schoolers serving detention are unwittingly pulled into the game. Their selected avatars, seemingly authentic, are tossed into a remote African jungle (shot in Hawaii) fighting for their very lives. What they discover is that you don’t just play Jumanji, you must survive it. To beat the game and return to the real world, they’ll have to go on the most dangerous adventure of their lives.
Each of the teens amusingly sees their game avatars as the opposite of their own physical and emotional identities. This allows them to gain a different perspective on themselves as well as each other. Initially, the fish out of water story is somewhat humorous, but it quickly evolves into a slightly deeper exploration of how stereotypes have affected their lives, for good and for bad.
Spencer, a brainy insecure nerd, is transformed into a physically superior hero, played by Dwayne Johnson. Meanwhile, the physically dominating football star, Fridge, becomes a diminutive, subservient valet, played by the wisecracking Kevin Hart. Bethany, an egotistical prima donna is outraged, “NO! I’m an overweight middle-aged man (Jack Black)” Finally, the quiet, wholesome Martha surprisingly becomes the hot chick (Karen Gillan), “Why am I wearing half a shirt and short shorts in the jungle?”
Immediately being hunted by a mob of dirt bike riders, they must change the way they think about themselves and about others, or they’ll be stuck in the game forever. Curious that the villain is named Van Pelt (same as in the original), but played by an extremely wicked Bobby Cannavale. Other salutes to the original were the booming drumbeat, the rhyming clues that help them eventually escape, as well as a reference to Alan Parrish’s camp, when he had been stuck in the game for 26 years.
In some respects, this is like a “Hunger Games” for dummies. Director Jake Kasdan (son of Lawrence Kasdan (“Raiders of the Lost Ark”) delivers a one-note message, but mostly focuses on pure character-based entertainment. If you don’t buy into the characters, it’s admittedly not clever, frightening or witty enough to satisfy the target audience.
Supporting actor Rhys Darby offers plucky comic relief as the game host and translator, while teen heartthrob Nick Jonas plays “Seaplane McDonough,” a boy stuck in the game for years, but just might be the missing piece to help them all escape. Tom Holland was originally cast, but replaced due to his filming schedule for another “Spiderman.”
This isn’t really a reboot or a sequel. It’s more of a reimagined adventure. Therefore, it does not require knowledge of the original to enjoy this version. It is fun to compare the two along the way, but the original was so unique, it could be difficult for some to accept the reinvention, especially if they don’t buy into the blatant absurdity.
“Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” is 119 minutes and rated PG-13 for adventure action, suggestive content and some language. There are improved action-pack digital effects and a nice “After School Special” theme about accepting others and ourselves as we are. However, it is these characters that will make or break the success of this “game.”
No matter how much you do or don’t enjoy this film, be grateful for a pleasant, family-oriented, action-comedy during the holiday season. It’s a different movie than the original, but it would have been a mistake to try to recreate those roles and that story. After all, their teacher said it best, “You only have one life, decide who you want to be.”
Ron’s Rating: B+ Leigh’s Rating: C+