Maybe it's the year-end overload of sobering movies aiming for awards, or that flu bug going around. But the Jumanji sequel nobody demanded is fun. Kind of. Sort of. It's a close call.
Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is a different beast than the 1995 hit starring Robin Williams about a board game coming alive, not indulging as often in CGI animal attacks. Back then, the technology was just being harnessed, so soon after Jurassic Park introduced it. Bring on the stampeding rhinos and lions; we hadn't seen this stuff so realistically before.
By now we have. So, director Jake Kasdan takes the sequel in another direction, focused on that staple of movie fluff, the body-swap comedy. Done right, the results can be Big; done wrong it's Vice Versa. Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle playfully bounces around somewhere in-between.
These swapped bodies result from a magical video game version of Jumanji, played by a high school Breakfast Club serving detention. There's a jock, a brain, a nerd and a preen-queen. (Sorry, no Judd Nelson.) When sucked into the game, they emerge in a jungle as their chosen avatars who are nothing like themselves.
The nerd becomes Dr. Smolder Bravestone allowing Dwayne Johnson to play meek contrasting his physique. The brain is now dance fighter Ruby Roundhouse, getting Karen Gillan out of Guardians of the Galaxy makeup to show the charm beneath. The jock loses 2 feet in height to become Kevin Hart, which is the extent of his jokes. The selfie star turns into Jack Black, who's silly enough to pull off ensuing jokes of how to pee.
Personality goes a long way in Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle even as the plot thickens too much with a quest to complete, a creepy guy (Bobby Cannavale) in the way and teen issues solved by proxy grownups, which gets weirder when it's Black hitting on Nick Jonas as another player stuck in the game. Jonas also provides the movie's subtle tribute to Williams, who died in 2014.
Kasdan puts the video game conceit to decent use. Each player gets three lives before their game's over, leading to key moments of loyalty, bravery and stupidity. Their individual strengths and weaknesses — Ruby's forte is dance fighting to UB40 — suit their perils. Kasdan's action centerpiece, a hectic helicopter escape, is one of the year's finest.
Oh, and those CGI animals? They're state of the art but the art will change soon. A black mamba here, an albino rhino stampede there. The centipede crawling into Cannavale's ear and the scorpion crawling from his mouth are more fun. Kind of. Sort of. Close call.
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