Unlike many remakes, Jake Kasdan’s re-imagining of a franchise with his new “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” is actually a solid improvement on the 1995 original starring Robin Williams. Many critics including our own late, great Roger Ebert complained the first movie, also inspired by Chris Van Allsburg’s 1981 “Jumanji” children’s book, made the mistake of placing the children in the film in too much serious danger.
This time around, Kasdan’s film provides us with plenty of breathtaking action sequences, featuring some pretty scary critters — ranging from a deadly snake to stampeding rhinos — yet it’s all done with a wink and a smile, absent true kiddie fear factors.
Better yet, the main concept transforms from a board game come to life to a video game into which the viewer is transported. That’s a conceit that will appeal as much to cynical and game-centric teens as to their young siblings.
All ages will love the way the young actors playing the four principal characters — Alex Wolff (Young Spencer), Ser’Darius Blain (Young Fridge), Madison Iseman (Young Bethany) and Morgan Turner (Young Martha) — are humorously switched into their adult avatar characters once they’re sucked into the game.
This is one of the movie’s biggest strengths: watching the muscular Dwayne Johnson (as the heroic adventurer Smolder Braverstone) portraying the nerdy, allergy-afflicted Spencer; diminutive zoologist Moose Finbar (Kevin Hart) still feeling he’s the tall high school football star Fridge, scantily clad martial arts pro Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan) still feeling she’s the shy and bookish Martha, and (best of all) Jack Black — as Dr. Shelly Oberon — playing the self-absorbed Valley Girl Bethany. The fact the avatars are so opposite the real characters’ personalities and abilities grounds it all in a funny scheme that, fortunately, doesn’t get old or tired.
As their avatars, the characters must become comfortable with a new set of powers and skills. They come to realize they only have three lives to live before being zapped (and thus killed) by “Game Over.” Their quest is to win the game by finding a magical emerald and restoring it to a huge leopard statue’s eye socket — thus restoring the peace in the terror-wracked land of Jumanji.
My only true complaint with the film is the source of all that terror: the creepy villain portrayed by Bobby Cannavale. That extremely talented actor’s talents are wasted here as he doesn’t do much more than hiss and spew verbal venom and expel millipedes and scorpions from his grimy, pest-infested body.
In the end, the filmmakers have given us one of the most fun movie-going experiences I’ve had this year. Huge kudos go to Johnson, Hart and especially Black for providing some truly entertaining performances for kids of all ages.
Oh yes, as for that opening scene — with a teenager sucked into the “Jumanji” game in 1996? No spoilers here, but pay attention! It ties in nicely with the role played by Nick Jonas, as the clumsy pilot Alex, once Spencer, Martha, Fridge and Bethany find themselves transported to the world of Jumanji.
Columbia Pictures presents a film directed by Jake Kasdan and written by Kasdan, Scott Rosenberg, Jeff Pinkner, Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers. Rated PG-13 (for adventure action, suggestive content and some language). Running time: 118 minutes. Opens Wednesday at local theaters.