Injecting fresh energy into Chris Van Allsburg’s hugely successful 1981 book – itself previously turned into a Robin Williams vehicle in 1995 – director Jake Kasdan’s rollicking mix of It’s a Wonderful Life and Tomb Raider finds comfortable humour and heart at the soft centre of its dog-eared source material.
The opening 1996-set prologue reveals everything you need to know about this savvy reboot. Old Man Vreeke (Tim Matheson) finds the Jumanji board game buried on the beach and gives it to his Metalhead son, who doesn’t get the whole “rolling the dice” thing and casts it aside. Later that night, an eerie green glow emanates from the box as the African-themed board transforms into a video game cassette; one that sucks the Cindy Crawford fan into the jungle arena hinted at in the old movie.
The fun fact that the game adjusts to the culture in which it finds itself gets plenty of latitude here thanks to Kasdan, significantly the son of Lawrence, screenwriter of The Empire Strikes Back and Raiders of the Lost Ark.
It’s the reason why this rip-roaring adventure, very much in the Night at the Museum franchise mould, takes in practically every family fantasy reference going, from those already mentioned through Tarzan, The Jungle Book, Jurassic Park, and even Mad Max. While it remains firmly in the “kid’s stuff” department, it’s high-grade, fun kid’s stuff with a throughline of sweetness, coupled with the now requisite underlying messages of acceptance and growing maturity.
So, that aforementioned video cassette and game console have ended up in the basement of Brantford High School, which four sullen teenagers in detention must tidy up. Before you can say Trivial Pursuit, swot Spencer (Alex Wolff), burly sports star Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain), shrinking violet Martha (Morgan Turner) and self-obsessed iPhone addict Bethany (Madison Iseman) are thrust into the Jumanji universe and take on the physiques of their chosen avatars.
Spencer becomes the beefy Dr. Smoulder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson), Fridge the constantly moaning “Moose” Finbar (Kevin Hart), Martha the sexy Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan) and, in the most inspired screenplay change, Bethany gender-swaps into nutty Dr Shelly Oberon (Jack Black). Once they’ve all got used to their new personas and power attributes, their quest is to replace a green jewel in the stone head of the giant Jaguar Rock shrine in order to return home. Problem is, the glittering jewel is in the clutches of evil animal whisperer Van Pelt (Bobby Cannavale), and he will stop at nothing to remain the feared Jumanji overlord.
Armed with a map only Oberon can see, and with the help of the Robinson Crusoe-esque “Seaplane” McDonough (Nick Jonas), the boy who went missing in 1996, the intrepid gamers follow arcane clues to Van Pelt’s treasure. Meanwhile, in true video game style, the three “lives” tattooed on each of their arms diminish as they accidentally “die” in the wilderness.
Anyone expecting wall-to-wall animal action will be disappointed, because those original film reliances are here thrust aside to showcase more character interplay. Our quartet dive over waterfalls, are chased in a damaged helicopter by charging rhinos, escape from a bazaar in true Indiana Jones-style, and come back to life in sky-falling morphs. The ace special effects are exemplary; the pulp novel thrills exciting, and the cliff-hanging serial dangers of the huggable gee-whiz variety.
Performances across the board are fine. If Hart does tend to grate, that is supposed to be Finbar’s downside. However, special mentions must go to Cannavale’s Prince of Darkness and Karen Gillan’s dance-fighting Lara Croft clone. By the way, a really nice touch is the homage paid to the late Robin Williams’ Alan Parrish character from the original film – keep your eyes peeled on the timbers in Alex’s cabin in the woods.
But it’s comedian Jack Black who deservedly steals the show as the learned scholar channelling his inner “Instagram Princess”. The scenes where he discovers his male member, and the flirting lessons he gives Ruby, are a hoot, and prove that all the CGI in the world can’t substitute for character acting of this calibre. Dwayne Johnson has already sent himself up so many times before that his anti-heroic turn, while amusing and entertaining, is nothing new, although he does do one of his signature Bravestone powers, “smouldering intensity”, very well indeed.
These pleasurable amounts of self-deflating enjoyment, with the lashings of derring-do and good old-fashioned values of retribution and reward, give a welcome wallop to what is a fairly average escapade. But with its cosy, Christmassy climax and surprisingly moving endgame, you’ll think it’s a much better slice of glossy escapism in retrospect as you wipe away those unexpected tears.