Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is the third film based on a 1981 children’s book by Chris Van Allsburg. Following Jumanji (1995) and the immediately forgettable Zathura: A Space Adventure (2005), Welcome to the Jungle pays homage to the Robin Williams-led classic while blazing its own trail.
As in the original, kids are entrapped in the titular game, but the four kids are quickly replaced by avatars played by Karen Gillan, Jack Black, Kevin Hart, and America’s proudest export, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. The Rock still looks like The Rock, but he’s inhabited by Spencer, an apprehensive, geeky teen. Welcome to the Jungle’s humor and heart rely on its central premise.
Four high school students from varying social cliques receive Saturday detention (eat your heart out, John Hughes) in their school’s basement. The group is ordered to complete a menial task when Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain), the jock, and Spencer (Alex Wolff) discover a bizarre video game system. They fire up the console and invite star-student Martha (Morgan Turner) and popular girl Bethany (Madison Iseman) to join them.
The detained students are sucked into the game in a green haze (a la The Matrix) where they occupy juxtaposed physical forms. In addition to Spencer’s transformation, popular Bethany metamorphs into Black, bookish Martha becomes scantily clad Gillan, and football star Fridge loses a few inches as Hart. The modern Breakfast Club are each given three lives to save the land of Jumanji from Professor Van Belt (a cartoonishly evil Bobby Cannavale). If they die three times before they save the jungle, they die in real life.
The body-swap humor powers Welcome to the Jungle like its main MacGuffin (the emerald eye of a giant jaguar statue) powers the jungle. Gillan and Johnson flex their figurative (and literal) muscles with physical comedy, a surprising gift that keeps on giving. Bethany (portrayed by Black) teaches Martha (portrayed by Gillan) to flirt with two mindless guards to outrageous effect. In turn, Hart is swatted across screen a few times for good measure.
Director Jake Kasdan and writers Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers, Scott Rosenberg, and Jeff Pinkner mold the recycled property into an unexpectedly charismatic trip to the movies. Jumanji (1995) was a pleasant mid-budget distraction. While hefty CGI costs nudge Welcome to Jungle closer to the blockbuster range, the movie delivers the same comforts 25 years later. The good-but-not-great action movie is a staple badly missed at the modern box office.
If the Kasdan name sounds familiar, you may recognize it because of Empire Strikes Back and Raiders of the Lost Ark co-writer Lawrence Kasdan is the father of the Welcome to the Jungle director. There’s a Spielbergian quality to Welcome to the Jungle, even if it is somewhat gauche. Remakes and reimaginings go wrong more often than they go right, but Welcome to the Jungle is an unusual exception.