'Jumanji' draws new players into the game

Grading on the "Baywatch"-deflated scale of 2017 The Rock reboot roles, "Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle" turns out to...

Posted: Dec. 9, 2017 10:21 AM
Updated: Dec. 10, 2017 4:29 PM

Grading on the "Baywatch"-deflated scale of 2017 The Rock reboot roles, "Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle" turns out to be surprisingly fun, infusing the premise with a "The Breakfast Club" twist while accentuating the comedy. For those seeking a yuletide movie-going alternative to awards bait and "Star Wars," this game-inspired offering is worth giving a spin.

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"Jumanji" receives a videogame-informed upgrade from the 1995 movie that starred Robin Williams, which requires transacting a whole lot of business in the first 15 minutes to get the board set up.

Four high-school students -- two nerds, a popular girl and a jock -- all land in detention, where they discover the play console that yanks them into the peril-filled world of Jumanji.

There, the four each take the form of the avatar they chose when not realizing the stakes. One of the nerds thus becomes musclebound Dr. Smolder Bravestone (the aforementioned Dwayne Johnson), the other skilled fighter Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan), the jock Bravestone's sidekick "Moose" Finbar (Kevin Hart), and the other girl scientist Shelly Oberon (Jack Black), owing to some confusion about the name.

The body-hopping aspect actually gives the cast material worth playing, even if it's extremely broad. In Johnson's case, that includes spoofing his own image -- as the kid revels in Bravestone's strength and physique -- while Gillan grouses about her wardrobe, Hart gripes about his diminutive size and, most obviously, Black vamps in playing a flighty girl confused by her new, er, accessories.

What ensues is, perhaps inevitably, a bit chaotic, as the group tries to win the game by restoring a mysterious crystal to its proper place -- with a stock bad guy (Bobby Cannavale) and his henchmen seeking to stop them -- before exhausting all of their lives.

The underlying nature of the characters, however, invests it with an element of sweetness, and barring a few dry lapses, the movie lurches along at a brisk enough pace so as not to overstay its welcome.

Basically, director Jake Kasdan (whose credits include "Bad Teacher" and a lot of TV comedies, like "New Girl") serves notice early that this "Jumanji" isn't meant to be taken too seriously, providing a light touch -- all the mayhem notwithstanding -- that feels well suited to its game-derived lineage, at a moment when even films without such origins can easily feel like live-action video games.

In a sign of the times, "Jumanji" is receiving an early preview with tickets exclusively available to Amazon Prime members before hitting theaters wide. It's a bit of a gimmick, especially with a film that appears to lack the kind of drawing power that will send people scurrying to subscribe.

"This world swallows up kids like you," the players are warned before entering the game. This year has had a way of unceremoniously swallowing up a lot of would-be blockbusters too, but based on its modest charms, that's a fate that "Jumanji" should be able to escape.

"Jumanji" is being previewed Dec. 8 for Amazon Prime members and opens wide in the U.S. on Dec. 20. It's rated PG-13.

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