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Film Review: JUMANJI: WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE is worthy of the name

Courtesy of Sony Pictures


First off, let me just say that I know audiences have a sour taste in their mouths about one of their most prized intellectual properties being re-tooled for this generation. I get it, I really do. As someone who grew up in a post-Robin Williams "Jumanji" era, when I heard that a reboot and/or sequel was in the works by director Jake Kasdan - (the same Kasdan who delivered the unfunny "Bad Teacher" and even worse "Sex Tape") I sighed over my shoulder, wondering how Hollywood could stoop so low. Especially because "Jumanji" holds a special place inside my heart (even more so, now that Williams has passed away).

Yet somewhere, somehow, I'm happy to report that it's counterpart "Jumanji: Welcome To The Jungle" is a faithful, fun, and often, hilarious companion to the beloved original.

That's probably because Kasdan, and his army of screenwriters, boost the film on the likes of nostalgia and they've done an impeccable job at updating what made the old "Jumanji" solid escapism, and combining it with the star power of Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson (who is quickly becoming the go-to, abiet, highest paid actor on the planet). Even if the film borrows on a formula that's been done just about sixteen different times, seeing these actors sell the material, makes "Jungle" a colorful standout.

The film opens in the Cindy Crawford days of 1996 on the beach, where, lying in the sand, is a board game beyond it's time. "Who plays board games anymore?" quips the unsuspecting comrade, and suddenly this thing transforms into a lone cartridge that can be played on TV. We don't see much, other than a quick flash and it's present day.

Its here we get introduced to Spencer (Alex Wolff), Martha (Morgan Turner), Anthony "Fridge" Johnson (Ser'Darius Blain), and Bethany (Madison Iseman). They all have their own quirks, mannerisms, and traits. Spencer is the nerd of the group, "Fridge" is the clueless jock, Martha is the insecure and shy one, and Bethany is the popular teen with too much time invested in her Instagram posts.  Despite everything they don't have in common, these four get stuck in the draught of detention, a throwback to the days of "The Breakfast Club" where they come across, a gaming console with the name JUMANJI plastered on it, and curiosity gets the better of them.

Before we can say "game on," these students choose their characters and get sucked into the virtual reality of the video game, one of the films many creative components that suits it well. Now these scrawny kids are the avatars they choose: so the nerdy Spencer now looks like The Rock's muscular Dr Smolder Bravestone; the towering and strong "Fridge" is Kevin Hart's small and fragile Moose Finbar; the quiet Martha is now a badass man killer named Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan); and, the best revelation of the bunch, is how the popular/gorgeous babe, Bethany, is now a middle aged, fat man called Professor Shelly Oberon played by Jack Black.

They're stuck in the middle of the jungle, an amazon like rainforest with three lives to spare, and a set of strength and weaknesses. Moose Finbar, even though he's a zoologist, can't run very fast, or be strong enough to save himself. However, Dr Smolder Bravestone has no weakness, and can, ahem, smolder intensely on cue. In retrospect, watching this movie is like viewing these actors as a parody of themselves. Spencer (in The Rock's body) is obsessed with his muscles and how he looks - a play on Mr. Johnson's own persona I'm sure - while Hart may have found his best live action role to date, playing the jock now turned sidekick, with constant quips about his own height and agility. I loved it.

Of course, Black doing his best 17 year old girl impersonation for the entire film is mostly funny, despite some of the material wearing thin towards the end, it goes a long way that he's willing to do anything to make the laughs stick. Some of the suggestive humor will produce massive giggles among your ten year old, but you might roll your eyes. A big running gag is how Bethany (in Black's body) has discovered she has a certain male appendage (it was funny the first time and not so much the other three.) And you can't forget "Guardians of the Galaxy's" Gillian, whose strength includes "Dance Karate” next to "Venom" being a weakness. 

Unlike the original, where the creatures from the board game inhabited our world, the "players" this time, must fight their way past a conniving, and old fashioned villain (Bobby Cannavale, who looks like he just walked out of "Rocky and Bullwinkle") - as they need to return a prized jewel to the top of a jaguar mountain in order to return home safely. As a cut scene dutifully explains, this green jewel holds the key to possessing Jumanji and living peacefully throughout the land. Not that we really care about the jewel anyway, I forgot it was a crucial plot point midway through, until a dashing pilot played by Nick Jonas shows up to remind us that it is. His strength by the way, is making a killer margarita, but if a mosquito nips him once, it's instant death.

So you see, there's plenty going on in "Welcome To The Jungle" that brings us back to the classic, fictional, roots of the predecessor, but it also allows for an updated new twist. I doubt all of these subplots will connect with everyone, because they don't always land the way they should. But the action packed fun and "Indiana Jones" inspired adventures are a terrific entrée to go down this holiday season, making this romp well worth the price of admission.

As I mentioned above, Hart has been on the receiving end of some bad scripts (looking at you "Central Intelligence," "Ride Along" and "About Last Night"). So it's refreshing that, finally, the man has found a script suitable for his talents. Likewise for The Rock, who is so interesting to watch playing a kid trapped inside himself.

So before you denounce this movie and those who made it, even though you probably have every right to do so, my job is to tell you if a movie is worth seeing. Nowadays, we are paying for a big and bloated studio tentpole project where the stakes aren't that high and the chemistry is next to none. And "Jungle" could've been another notch on the Hollywood retread belt, but thankfully it's found the correct footing and an inspiring premise to help solidify its own existence. B+

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