Dwayne Johnson won’t win an Oscar for Jake Kasdan’s “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle,” (*** OUT OF ****), but he portrays a riotous character far from anything he has done before this body switch saga. Basically, the Rock ridicules himself with a straight-face throughout this PG-13, 119-minute, action-adventure escapade that rarely takes itself seriously. As captivating as the Rock is as a khaki-clad Indiana Jones fortune hunter, co-star Jack Black overshadows him with his own bizarre character. Just as “Orange County” director Jake Kasdan lets Johnson poke fun at himself as a nerd cringing inside the physique of a bodybuilder, he has taken it a step farther with Jack Black who ends up in the body of female character. Scratching your head yet? These are examples of the sidesplitting shenanigans that underline this frivolous film. Abetting Jack Black and the Rock in this superficial slapstick are comedian Kevin Hart and actress Karen Gillian. They inhabit characters with whom they share zip. These likable characters make the preposterous premise entertaining. A mysterious videogame console uploads four high school teens and turns them into their gaming avatars. Each comes equipped with skills designed to aid them in an epic scavenger hunt. The time frame of the hunt depends on the participants’ luck. Not only do a quartet of writers–Chris McKenna, Jeff Pinker, Scott Rosenberg, and Erik Sommers–segue this sequel to director Joe Johnston’s earlier “Jumanji” (1995), but they also have reimagined it for contemporary audiences with no patience for board games. “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” amounts to sheer, harebrained hokum from fade-in to fadeout. Everything about this farce is far-fetched. Nothing slows down the headlong momentum, however, during these madcap melodramatics. Like the original Robin Williams movie, this “Jumanji” contains a similar frame story, but the writers spend more time on the subsequent story about the four high school kids. Superior computer-generated imagery in some truly outlandish scenes surpasses the primitive CGI in the 1995 film. You’ll never forget the crocodile scene! Moreover, a clever premise allows our heroes and heroines to cheat death like immortals!
“Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” starts on the beach where the 1995 movie heroes buried the board game. In the prologue, a teen digs it up and takes it home. While he is asleep, the durable board game repurposes itself into a video game console. When he plays it, the game hijacks him from his cozy bedroom to an alternate dimension. Twenty years elapse, and the main characters are introduced. Principal Bentley (Marc Evan Jackson of “Kong: Skull Island”) busts beanpole gamer and germaphobe Spencer Gilpin (Alex Wolff of “My Friend Dahmer”) for plagiarism. Spencer wrote an academic paper for his friend, star football player Anthony ‘Fridge’ Johnson (Ser’Darius Blain of “Camp X-Ray”), that Spencer had earlier submitted as his own to his gimlet-eyed History teacher. Meanwhile, an annoyed teacher catches self-absorbed, social media-addicted Bethany Walker (Madison Iseman of “Laid in America”) on her smart phone during an exam. Finally, an introverted nobody, Martha Kaply (Morgan Turner of “Remember Me”), refuses to exercise during P.E., and she winds up in Bentley’s office. Bentley lets them off the hook with detention. Sounds like “The Breakfast Club?” Not for long! They must clean up a room littered with trash. Fridge stumbles onto that mysterious console. The four students decide to play this mysterious “Mortal Combat” game. Instead, they are morphed into it and emerge on the far side as their avatars. Pusillanimous Spencer is now expedition leader Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson) with massive muscles. Towering football champion Fridge finds himself shrunk drastically into pint-sized zoologist Moose Finbar (Kevin Hart of “Central Intelligence”) who dreads everything. Much to her horror, sexy Bethany takes the form of obese, balding, middle-aged Professor Shelly Oberon (Jack Black of “King Kong”) whose expertise is maps. Shy Martha becomes butt-kicking martial arts sensation Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan of “Guardians of the Galaxy”) with a flair for ‘dance fighting.’
“Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” doesn’t stray far from the vintage Robin Williams “Jumanji.” In the original, the son of a shoe manufacturer played the haunted board game, and he vanished into it like so much paranormal dust into a board. Unfortunately, he didn’t escape from the magic board game universe as easily as he wanted. After he returned to reality, he contends with a big-game hunter from the past stalking him in his hometown. The hunter traded in his antique rifle for a fully automatic assault rifle and lays waste to modern society as he searches for the hero. Later, a stampede of enormous zoo animals trashed the town. Nevertheless, the son triumphs over adversity. The “Jumanji” sequel differs in some respects from its predecessor. More characters play the game, and teamwork pays off as their best strategy. They are dropped from the sky into the jungle “Predator” style and ponder the three hashtag tattoos on their wrists that indicate their number of lives. Indeed, our heroes and heroines can die a couple of times, heightening the suspense, when their heroics aren’t amusing us. The best thing about the new “Jumanji” is its gallery of sympathetic heroes and heroines. Smolder Bravestone, Moose Finbar, Professor Shelly Oberon, and Ruby Roundhouse are as charismatic as the actors and actresses. They are riddled from within by the guilt of their real-life counterparts. For example, you’ll laugh at the Rock when he cowers before Kevin Hart. Remember, the man inside Smolder is Spencer, and Spencer is a medicating nerd. The scene where Bethany coaches Ruby about the rudiments of flirting is hysterical. Happily, Kasdan and his writers have given everybody a scene or more to shine. Ultimately, the success of “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” is such that Jake Kasdan’s comic cliffhanger may constitute more than a sequel but also a reboot! “Jumanji” has coined $883 million plus worldwide from a $90 million budget. No studio would dare produce such a blockbuster and sit on a franchise.