Over twenty years ago the first “Jumanji” showed us the most dangerous board game since Ouija. Now the apparently sentient game is back, having remodeled itself to lure in victims of the digital age.
A short prologue begins in 1996 after the discarded game is found washed up on a beach. Overhearing an angsty teen scoff at the idea of playing a board game, it transforms into a surprisingly retro looking game cartridge. Instead of running in fear, the foolish teen plays the game and is quickly consumed.
Fast forward to our current era and we are subjected to an unavoidable but cliched introduction to four very different high school students. Spencer (Alex Wolff) is big on brains but low on courage and self-confidence. He’s apparently highly allergic to something and needs to carry an Epipen around at all times, although for once, this plot device is never mentioned again. Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain) is a star football player who has his priorities and loyalties out of order. Bethany (Madison Iseman) is the epitome of a Mean Girl/Basic Bitch with such an attachment to her cell phone that she could be classified as a cyborg. Finally, there is Martha (Morgan Turner), a cute redhead who’s biggest flaw is she’s strongly opinionated and doesn’t back down when maybe she should? For various reasons, they all end up in detention together which consists of them cleaning out an old storage room. Magically, this room contains the old console, Jumanji game, an old school tube TV. The characters each grab a controller, pick an avatar, press start and promptly disintegrate.
It’s at this point the movie begins to embrace its silliness and the fun begins. Each character has now taken on the (anatomically correct) physical aspects of the avatars they selected, which alone is enough to induce spontaneous laughter. Spencer is now played by Dwayne Johnson, Fridge by Kevin Hart, Martha by Karen Gillan, and Bethany hilarious portrayed by Jack Black. Not only is this casting near comedic perfection, but they are essentially channeling teenagers. Their looks, expressions, and reactions to the various trials they encounter are not those of adults, but of teenagers trapped in an adult body. (Which conjures up pleasant memories of Tom Hanks’ “BIG”)
Like any good video game, the players are motivated forward by a series of tasks and challenged with obstacles that slowly tick off their three available lives. With a healthy mix of physical comedy, ridiculous but family-friendly action, and clever riffs on video game logic, there’s something for everyone to enjoy. Sure, cliches abound, and the life-lesson-of-the-week message makes it quite predictable at times, but no one can deny this is a fun movie. The only true problem it has are the avatars are so entertaining, it’s a bit disappointing when we’re returned to the real world.