Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is the first kiddie flick mapped over a Guns n’ Roses song. Jake Kasdan’s big, bright and goofy adventure about four kids sucked into a knockoff Nintendo checks off every lyric. Fun and games? Very sexy girls? People that can find whatever you may need? Touching something serpentine? Check, check, check and check, down to Axl Rose’s threat: “You’re gonna dieeeeeeeeee.”
Technically, death isn’t that bad. When high schoolers Spencer (Alex Wolff), Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain), Martha (Morgan Turner) and Bethany (Madison Iseman) — the wimp, the jock, the brain, and the babe — dissolve into the digital dimension, they’re given two extra lives to spare in their quest to restore a softball-sized emerald eye to a jaguar statue, rescue Jumanji, and get fritzed back to detention hall where their abandoned controllers look like the leftovers of a Satanic ritual. Waste one, say when Fridge shoves Spencer off a cliff for getting him kicked off the football team back home, and the murdered teen apparates in the sky and plummets to the ground, pissed.
Yes, this is The Breakfast Club meets Lord of the Flies, where archetypes mock each other until they mature, or die trying. As their tweedy principal (Marc Evan Jackson) coos, “There is no better place for self-reflection than detention.” Fictional suburban high schools are the new meditation retreat.
The original 1995 Jumanji starred a century-old board game with a Magic 8 ball-inspired orb telling the players what do to. Tres dated. In 2017, the technology has advanced to a dusty 20-year-old console that comes alive with a shivery little 8-bit jingle. Most of the kids aren’t even sure how to play that; only the geeky Spencer understands lingo like “cutscenes” and “non-player characters,” like their guide Nigel (Rhys Darby) who shows up just in time to give advice, and speeds off before they can ask him for a ride. Rolling dice feels more proactive than simply wandering a world that some godlike programmer built. But at least there’s cooler backstory montages, like the cutscene where they behold villain Van Pelt (Bobby Cannavale), a heavily mascaraed field with millipedes living in his ears, lustily curling his lip at the giant emerald like Elvis seducing a sandwich.
There’s a twist, of course. Inside the game, the kids are transformed into characters they picked at random — but who, of course, have traits each needs to try on, like an oversized suit. Awkward Spencer is now Dr. Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson), whose skills include speed climbing, boomerangs, and, of course, “smoldering intensity,” which wouldn’t seem to factor into a game where you have to outrace hippos, but hey, it gives The Rock a chance to look at the camera and purr. Football player Fridge is stuck in the 5’4″ frame of Kevin Hart’s Mouse Finbar — the pixels were so blurry he thought he’d selected “Moose.” Intellectual Martha now ambulates the endless legs of Karen Gillan’s Ruby Roundhouse, and, best of all, vapid bombshell Bethany’s impulsive choice to pick a “curvy genius” cartographer named Shelly has plopped her in the body of Jack Black, who unzips his pants and yelps, “Martha, come look at my penis!” I was not above snorting at that line, or Black’s half-dozen other wiener jokes. When he gets his first boner, he beams, “These things are crazy!”
Give Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle credit for not wholly insulting the audience’s intelligence. The entire script is centered on these cliches embracing their cliché new bodies, cocooning stereotypes inside stereotypes like nesting dolls. The class beauty queen develops a personality; the class intellectual learns to flirt. There’s really no point to any of this besides ticket sales and cheery mantras like “teamwork!” But what the film lacks in depth, it balances in detail. Black’s soft — but not comically squeaky — voice gives Bethany the soul she lacked in hot girl form, back when all the screenwriters could think of to have her do was take selfies. Here, she falls for a handsome pilot (Nick Jonas), and Black makes her crush as tender as it is preposterous. Gillan’s Ruby, a nearly six-foot-tall send-up of Lara Croft, is so strong and practical that her femme fatal feels more ridiculous than sexy. She starts the game slapping a mosquito off her exposed midriff and groaning, “Why am I wearing this in the jungle?” and by the time Bethany/Black tries to train her to flirt with enemy guards, has built her whole performance into a hilarious marionette act, sashaying across the brush with a knock-kneed, zombie walk that makes her look like a drunken deer.
As for The Rock, he’s still The Rock, only now allowed to gawk at his absurd physical form. Once transformed, he gapes at his ham-sized bicep, gushing, “What the hell?!” It’s the most relatable line in the film. While everyone in the film is an exaggeration, in that moment, we’d all say the same thing. In what passes for gravitas, Johnson does a fine job pretending to carry around a shy geek’s fears. He’s got 13-inches and 120 lbs on Kevin Hart, yet when Mouse threatens him with a punch, Johnson flinches. His greatest dramatic moment comes when Bravestone turns away from the group to stare heroically at a cliff. Then the camera circles around to his face as he quietly mumbles, “Don’t cry, don’t cry, don’t cry.” Encore, Axl Rose.