Game attitude: Engaging cast makes Jumanji 2 surprisingly diverting

Kevin Hart, Dwayne Johnson, Karen Gillan and Jack Black star in Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle. (Frank Masi | Sony Pictures)

Movies released during December tend to self-sort into either of two categories: 1) Oscar bait seeking to make the qualification deadline and 2) wholesome family fare, to which you can take your kids when they’re getting cabin fever during the holiday school break. On rare occasions, the kid-friendly fare proves pleasurable enough even to the adult viewer to make that cold trip to the theater worthwhile.

Such is the case with Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, directed by Jake Kasdan. Loosely based on Chris Van Allsburg’s 1981 picture book Jumanji, it’s neither a remake nor precisely a sequel to Joe Johnston’s 1995 film of the same name. Rather, it passes the same MacGuffin – a bewitched game that brings jungle animals and other environmental perils to life – into the hands of a different group of young protagonists. Only this time, instead of the jungle appearing in the lead characters’ home and neighborhood, the game transports the kids into its own alternate universe.

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In a prelude set in the ’90s, a surly teenager named Alex (Mason Guccione) sneers at a board game that his father has unearthed on a beach and brought home; overnight, it transforms itself into a videogame. Intrigued, Alex begins to play and is swiftly sucked into the game console. Cut to 20 years later, when Alex’s family’s house has fallen into ruin following his disappearance. We are introduced to four high school students who end up in detention together: nerdy Spencer (Alex Wolff), jock Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain), rebel Martha (Morgan Turner) and shallow Bethany (Madison Iseman).

All four end up in detention together, assigned to clean up junkpiles in the school basement, wherein lurks Alex’s old game, awaiting their meddling. None of the four young actors is particularly memorable, and their characters are fairly one-dimensional. (You are especially going to detest Bethany, the stuck-up, pretty, popular girl who spends her life taking selfies.) But that’s okay, because they won’t stay in these bodies for long. Each must choose an avatar from the videogame, and each will be transformed into a more experienced actor for most of the rest of the film.

That’s where the fun begins. Spencer the scrawny geek has become a strapping Indiana Jones-type archaeologist/adventurer named Dr. Smolder Bravestone, played by Dwayne Johnson. Football star Fridge is highly annoyed to find himself manifesting as the very short Franklin “Mouse” Finbar (Kevin Hart), a zoologist whose primary function is to carry around a backpack full of weapons for Bravestone. Physically and socially awkward Martha finds it difficult indeed to adjust to being a Lara Croft-type battling character called Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan). Best of all, Bethany becomes Jack Black – or rather, Professor Sheldon “Shelly” Oberon, the only avatar character capable of reading maps, but otherwise mainly a hindrance to the exploration party.

Sometimes a movie is worth seeing simply because the actors seem to be having such a blast playing off-type; Jumanji 2 is that sort of movie. There’s tremendous potential here for physical comedy, and we get it in spades. You really haven’t lived until you’ve seen Jack Black give his all to the portrayal of a bitchy, self-confident, outdoors-averse 16-year-old girl who is trying to get used to functioning in the body of a fat middle-aged man and still survive in a hostile environment. Luckily, the game characters all get three lives, but they start using them up fast.

In order to get out of the game and back to reality, the four comrades must complete a quest to restore a magical stolen jewel to a stone idol in the heart of the jungle. The jewel, which confers mastery over animals (making him a “game boss” in more ways than one), is currently in the hands of villain Russel Van Pelt (Bobby Cannavale), the only holdover character from the 1995 film version. As if carnivorous and venomous beasts were not enough in the way of obstacles, Van Pelt’s minions also chase them on motorcycles and shoot at them. Each avatar character must discover his or her unaccustomed strengths and compensate for unaccustomed weaknesses in order to survive and learn to work as a team. They also must find the missing fifth member of their party, Jefferson “Seaplane” McDonough (Nick Jonas), in order to make it to the game’s final level.

And that’s about it: nothing groundbreakingly original. The fun here is in watching Johnson, Hart, Gillan and especially Black embody four silly kids who don’t belong in those particular bodies, and they do it very well. Chris McKenna’s screenplay is brisk and clever, giving these four plenty of material to work with (I expect to see “Cake makes me explode” become a popular meme shortly). In short, if you’ve got some youngsters handy, don’t hesitate to use them as an excuse to go see Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle.

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