Review: ‘Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle’ Has Dwayne Johnson as a Nerd

Posted December 19, 2017 6:13 p.m. EST

Very few remakes, sequels or franchise reboots have signaled their desperation to connect quite as nakedly as “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” does. The movie opens in 1996 with a young man finding the now-discarded board game that wreaked such havoc on its players in the 1995 Robin Williams movie. The game winds up in the room of a teenager who ignores it, because who wants to play a board game? Overnight, the board game magically turns into a video game cartridge. And upon being inserted into the teenager’s console, something strange happens.

The movie cuts to the present day and introduces four archetypal, irritating teenage characters. There’s the smart and awkward Spencer; his former best friend “Fridge,” now a high school football star who makes Spencer do his homework; the selfie-obsessed popular girl, Bethany; and Martha, who’s a diluted variation of Allison, the smartest and angriest girl in the room in “The Breakfast Club.” And much like in that movie, these kids all get detention together.

At first, I presumed that the film’s increased attention on these teenagers was to make us that much more eager for the stars Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart and Jack Black to show up. There’s good news and bad news: We meet the marquee names shortly after detention. Only they are portraying those same irritating teenage characters.

I’ll explain. The actual teenagers discover the discarded video game console in the detention room. They plug it in, the game boots up, and the kids choose their characters. Then they get sucked into the game, where they, among other things, meet the fellow who got sucked into the game 20 years before.

The movie derives its humor, such as it is, from the teenagers’ avatar choices. The nerd gets to be Dwayne Johnson. The big football player gets to be Kevin Hart (who, it is frequently noted, is not tall). The shy, awkward Martha gets to be an expert in dance-fighting (played by Karen Gillan). And the selfie-obsessed girl gets to be, surprise, Jack Black. The crew must navigate a mission that involves a large gem and a villain (Bobby Cannavale) who has insects crawling in and out of his mouth more regularly than is considered normal.

Their adventure often asks, “What would Steven Spielberg do?” It then answers poorly. (The movie’s director, Jake Kasdan, happens to be the son of Lawrence Kasdan, who worked as a screenwriter with Spielberg on “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”) The performances by Johnson, Hart and Black seem informed by the conviction that if they amuse themselves, they will also amuse others. They are not entirely wrong, but they are also not sufficiently right. Gillan, the lesser-known quantity of the group, has to work harder as the geeky teenager comes to enjoy living, even if temporarily, in a bombshell adult package. She does commendable work both satirizing, and also fulfilling, a sexist conception.

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"Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle" is rated PG-13, mostly for the sort of humor that ensues when a teenage girl finds herself in the body of Jack Black. Running time: 1 hour 59 minutes.