A movie featuring the biggest action movie star working in films today (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) teamed with one of the biggest comedians on the planet (Kevin Hart) would be enough to give “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” the potential to be the most entertaining movie opening for the holiday season. All you need to do is look at their team-up for the 2016 action/comedy “Central Intelligence” if you have any doubts about what they can do when they put their comedy minds together.
They are so good together they don’t need help but they get it in the form of Jack Black, who turns in his best work since “School of Rock,” and Karen Gillan, the “Doctor Who” and “Guardians of the Galaxy” star, who shows she can handle comedy with just as much ease as she can deal with massive action sequences.
The four make “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” one of the funniest and fun films of the year. This one is a real blast.
The film, just like the 1995 feature film “Jumanji” starring Robin Williams, is based on the 1981 book by Chris Van Allsburg, where it is win or game over for anyone who finds the mysterious board game. The big difference is while in the 1995 version, the board game came to life in the real world of the players, this version gets an upgrade. This Jumanji is a video game. Instead of wild animals in the living room, four teens are pulled inside the Jumanji game that unfolds in a jungle world.
This is a brilliant move by the gaggle of screenwriters who worked on the script, as it allows director Jake Kasdan (“Freaks and Geeks”) to take the action to a jungle setting. He can load the movie with everything from a knot of snakes to a crash of rhinos.
Another smart move is having all the teenage players become the avatars they selected when the started to play the game. Super nerd Spencer (Alex Wolff) becomes the muscle-covered Dr. Smolder Bravestone (Johnson) while high school football star Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain) becomes Bravestone’s sidekick, Moose Finbar (Hart).
The biggest transformation is having Bethany (Madison Iseman), a young woman in love with herself more than anything else in the world, become middle-aged scientist Prof. Shelly Oberon (Black). She’s more upset that she can’t find her phone than she is that she’s a man. Rounding out the group is the mousy Martha (Morgan Turner), who becomes proficient fighter Ruby Roundhouse (Gillan).
Giving the actors personalities different than what they typically play opens up a lot of room to grow the characters. It’s fun to watch the generally heroic Johnson cower at the sight of a squirrel. And, Black has a great time showing off a feminine side.
No one seems to be having more fun than Gillan. She takes full advantage of the comedy that comes out of the wallflower Martha being coached to be sexually alluring by Bethany in the form of Black. Her “sexy” walk is somewhere between a Clydesdale stomp and a drunken ogre stumble. And, she shares an on-screen kiss with Johnson that is the most unappealing lip lock in film history. But, it all goes to making sure the humor never gets obscured by the high-octane action that rarely lest up during the production.
The script writers were able to include all the elements of a video game from characters who can only provide a limited amount of information to a set number of lives for the participants. Knowing it’s possible to die inside the game adds tension. Using the video game format also helps cover anything that would seem too outlandish in a standard action movie (such as flying a helicopter on its side). Rules are different in video games, and Kasdan takes advantage of that.
There’s even time to get across a message about trying to decide what kind of person you want to be. That’s not necessary in this kind of action/comedy, but shows there’s room for smart writing in any kind of film production. And that writing includes a very touching finale that doesn’t pander to the audience.
There are a couple of intense action scenes and a little bathroom humor, but overall, this is the kind of movie that will entertain young and old. The film is so good that you shouldn’t be surprised if you look for a reset button to start it all over again.
‘Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle’
Directed by: Jake Kasdan
Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Jack Black, Karen Gillan, Nick Jonas, Alex Wolff
Running time: 112 minutes