PLOT Four teenagers are pulled inside a video game and become avatars very different from themselves.
CAST Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Karen Gillan, Jack Black
RATED PG-13 (some scary action and video-game deaths)
BOTTOM LINE Few of us had high hopes for a “Jumanji” sequel, but this isn’t half-bad. The well-chosen cast is the key ingredient.
Four teenagers stuck in detention discover a video game that pulls them into a fantastic world in “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle.” It’s an inventive, slightly clunky and mostly likable sequel to a movie that could be described the same way, 1995’s “Jumanji.” One difference between the two is the original allowed its talented star, Robin Williams, to flounder in a sea of CGI effects, while this follow-up is, refreshingly, far more interested in its human cast.
That isn’t immediately clear in the film’s exceedingly slow start, which introduces four characters swiped straight from “The Breakfast Club:” brainy Spencer (Alex Wolff), misfit Martha (Morgan Turner), football star Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain) and queen bee Bethany (Madison Iseman). After wondering only briefly why there’s a video game in their detention hall, they plug it in, choose their avatars and find themselves transported into the jungle of Jumanji.
Here’s where things pick up: Skinny Spencer is now Dr. Smolder Bravestone, an action hero with the pumped-up pecs of Dwayne Johnson; Martha becomes Ruby Roundhouse, a svelte knockout in boots and short shorts played by Karen Gillan; the massive Fridge shrinks into Kevin Hart as perpetual sidekick Franklin Finbar; and best of all, self-centered Bethany becomes Dr. Sheldon Oberon, played by Jack Black.
You may ask: Though good for an initial laugh, how long can this wrong-body comedy shtick pay off? The answer: pretty much the entire movie. Nobody here has the physical chops of Steve Martin sharing a body with Lily Tomlin in “All of Me,” perhaps, but these four are awfully good. Johnson and Hart carry over their chemistry from “Central Intelligence,” Black is pitch-perfect as a princess with a new pot belly and Gillan, as Martha-turned-Ruby, deserves credit for wondering aloud why her video-babe self is so underdressed. Most surprisingly, the new identities provide a rather touching emotional moment near the story’s end.
Director Jake Kasdan (“Bad Teacher”) and his four writers provide little narrative connection to the original film aside from a mention of Williams’ character, Alan Parrish, and a new version of the villain Van Pelt (a slightly underused Bobby Cannavale). That’s perfectly all right. “Jumani: Welcome to the Jungle” has plenty of flaws, but it’s at least strong enough to stand as its own movie.