Movie Review: ‘JUMANJI: WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE’ – we got fun and games

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Connor Bynum // Film Critic

JUMANJI: WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE

Rated PG-13, 119 minutes.
Director: Jake Kasdan
Cast: Dwayne JohnsonKaren GillanKevin HartJack BlackRhys DarbyBobby CannavaleAlex Wolff and Nick Jonas

Upon the announcement that the 1996 classic JUMANJI was getting a sequel, starring Dwayne Johnson and Kevin Hart, I must admit my expectations were low. How could any movie ever stand up next to one of the late Robin Williams’ most cherished films? Well, color me pleasantly surprised, because JUMANJI: WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE is popcorn-fueled escapism at its finest and a wonderful follow-up to its timeless predecessor.

Taking place 20 years after the original film, the mystical game would be nothing if not able to evolve with the times. Now transformed into a video game console rather than a tabletop board game, JUMANJI pulls from TRON’s playbook and sucks in whoever is foolish enough to pick up a controller. Enter four high schoolers straight out of the Breakfast Club. Avid gamer and hopeless nerd, Spencer (Alex Wolff), desperately tries to stay in contact with his childhood best friend turned super-jock, Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain), by doing his homework for him. Bethany (Madison Iseman), a stereotypical popular girl struggles to comprehend the concept of other people’s existence, and Martha (Morgan Turner) is a book smart social outcast with no real friends. Each of them finds a way to end up in detention where they uncover the titular game console and are absorbed into its world, where they must learn to work together if they ever hope to get out alive.

What follows is what makes the film such a fun time: each of these four kids is transformed into the polar opposites of their personality. Spencer, now played by Dwayne Johnson, has no idea what to do with his newfound herculean physique while Fridge takes the form of Kevin Hart, a comedian known for his small stature and big mouth. Martha is now a scantily-clad badass, played by Karen Gillan, and Bethany has been transformed into none other than a portly Jack Black.

L-R: Kevin Hart, Dwayne Johnson, Karen Gillan and Jack Black star in ‘JUMANJI: WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE.’ Courtesy Photo.

Seeing these actors play such different characters than audiences are used to is a delightful breath of fresh air. Johnson still performs his obligatory tough-guy stunts, but never fails to maintain the persona of a dorky teenage kid. Gillan also dominates the action scenes, while jumping at the chance to call video games out on the way female characters are so often portrayed in the medium. However, Black by far and away steals the show with the most convincing portrayal of a teenage girl to ever come out of a 48-year-old man. Yet what makes his character work so well is that his schtick never feels mean spirited. Instead, the genuine sincerity he brings to the character is what makes it so funny.

While Hart is entirely enjoyable in a role that only he could play, his performance unfortunately never feels as connected to his teenage counterpart like the rest of his castmates. This isn’t necessarily through any fault of Hart’s, as much as it is for Ser’Darius Blain. Kevin Hart’s signature brand of chattery comedy would have worked so much better if Blain hadn’t established Fridge’s personality as a relatively collected and succinct tough guy. It’s a minor gripe to be sure, but when surrounded by three other knock-out performances it sadly tends to stick out.

JUMANJI: WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE is the kind of movie that brings a smile to one’s face from start to finish. With clever nods to video game tropes such as an intentionally one-dimensional villain, this is a move made for gamers and fans of the source material alike. With so many heavy handed dramas hitting theaters this time of year, it’s certainly refreshing to see a film that just wants you to have a great time at the movies.

[Grade: B+]

JUMANJI: WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE opens in theaters nationwide today.

About author

Preston Barta

Hello, there! My name is Preston Barta, and I am the features editor of Fresh Fiction and senior film critic at the Denton Record-Chronicle. My cinematic love story began where I was born: off planet on the isolated desert world of the Jakku system. It's there I passed the time scavenging for loose parts with my good friend Rey. One day I found an old film projector and a dusty reel of the 1975 film JAWS. It rocked my world so much that I left my kinfolk in the rearview (I so miss their morning cups of green milk) to pursue my dreams of writing about film. It wasn't long until I met two gents who said they would give me a lift. I can't recall their names, but one was an older man who liked to point a lot and the other was a tall, hairy fella. They got me as far as one of Jupiter's moons where we crossed paths with the U.S.S. Enterprise. Some pointy-eared bastard said I was clear to come aboard. He saw that I was clutching my beloved shark movie and invited me to the "moving pictures room" where he was screening the 1993 film JURASSIC PARK to his crew. He said my life would be much more prosperous if I were familiar with more work by the god named Steven Spielberg. From there, my love for cinema blossomed. Once we reached planet Earth, everything changed. I found the small town of Denton, TX, and was welcomed into the Barta family. They showed me the writings of local film critic Boo Allen. He became my hero and caused me to chase a degree in film and journalism. After my studies at graduate of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, I met some film critics who showed me the ropes and got me into my first press screening: 2011's THE GREEN LANTERN. Don't worry; I recovered just fine. MAD MAX: FURY ROAD was only four years away.