Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is one of those movies that was announced with more of a thud than a bang. The 90s kid adventure flick starring Robin Williams, Bonnie Hunt and Kirsten Dunst is a nostalgic favorite for many of a certain generation, but it doesn’t smack of new opportunity. The original Jumanji took itself very seriously, almost as a Jurassic Park for children who weren’t up to the dino disaster yet. Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle takes an entirely different tact. Instead of relying on a couple of tested stars playing world-weary adults alongside cheeky child actors, this iteration takes four established talents and lets them run wild as teenagers sucked into unfamiliar bodies.
But, before we get to why that’s something of a stroke of genius, let’s rewind to WHY this all happens. We meet a quartet of teens — a shy boy nerd, a jock, an outcast gal nerd and a popular girl — each of them gets thrown into detention, for reasons. Their detention is manual labor, specifically removing staples from hundreds and hundreds of magazines. Why? So a storage room could be made into a computer lab, cause you know, lots of high schools in 2017 don’t have one of those. Anyway, this storage room also has an ancient tv with an unknown video game console that has exactly one game. And you guessed it, that one game is Jumanji — a vignette at the opening of the film shows us the storied board game transforming itself to trick a kid from 1995 into playing along.
And here comes the other twist, whereas the board game brought elements of Jumanji to Earth, the video game sucks players into Jumanji from the word go. Each player becomes the character they selected and is assigned exactly three lives. Enter our cast of proven talent. The shy boy nerd is transformed into hunky hero Dr. Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne “I will never stop calling him The Rock” Johnson), while the jock becomes Dr. Moose Finbar (Kevin Hart), a zoologist who has none of the physical dominance he’s used to. The outcast gal nerd drops into the Lara Croft-esque form of Ruby Roundhouse (Karan Gillan), an alluring powerhouse physical fighter. Finally, and most delightfully, the popular girl takes up the mantle and stature of Professor Sheldon Oberon (Jack Black), an archeologist and cryptologist who is as academic and un-athletic as she is glamorous and Insta-obsessed.
It’s no coincidence that Jack Black is the lone figure in the image that leads this article. I came for Jack Black as a teenage girl and I stayed for Jack Black as a teenage girl. To be clear, everyone here is having a ton of fun, and it comes through with a lot of laughs and whimsy in a picture that doesn’t ask anything of the audience but to crunch on some popcorn and come along for the ride. But it’s Black who is allowed to run away with it. He doesn’t go too over-the-top, nor does he reduce his character to a shell to be made fun of, he simply nails the physical comedy and the generous lines he’s given. It’s a riot of silliness and joy that far outpaces the expectations Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle may have inspired on paper. It’s a refreshing reminder that even a flimsy premise and plot can be propped up by clever writing and solid performances from a cast capable of rising to the occasion.