There’s a lot to like about Jumanji: Welcome To The Jungle (yes, the Guns ‘n’ Roses song gets a brief look in); much of what’s to like about it is Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.
The story of this latest take on Jumanji will be comfortably familiar to anyone who remembers the 1995 original starring Robin Williams — four high-school students find themselves inside an adventure game. The new conceit of this remake is that Jumanji is now a video game, and the four — Spencer, the nervous Jewish boy; Fridge, the academically struggling black football player; Bethany, the self-absorbed blonde Instagrammer; and Martha, the bookish, mousey girl — take a break from the detention their principal has put them all in to play the game they find in a dusty old store-room at their school. What makes the film entirely more enjoyable than what it might otherwise have been — Breakfast Club Goes To Adventureland, perhaps — is the fact that each of the four assumes the character they select as they start playing. So Spencer becomes Dr. Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson), an absurdly muscular and, obviously, brave leader, but he’s still, at heart, the shy, nerdy lad who finds the most terrifying thing about the Jumanji jungle to be the fact that he has no Claritin with him. Fridge becomes Finbar (Kevin Hart), as scholarly and short as Fridge isn’t. Martha finds herself as Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan), the kind of young woman who wears, and comments upon the unsuitability in the jungle of, shorts and top that are little more than a bikini, but who can kick attackers off motorbikes. But the most inspired twist is Bethany’s character. She imagines that Shelly Oberon will be a fun persona to take on; as she arrives in the game she discovers that the character is in fact Professor Sheldon Oberon, a short, dumpy, bearded, middle-aged man played with quite splendid silliness by Jack Black.
And so the four, guided slightly by Nigel (Rhys Darby, making little or no attempt to hide his Kiwi accent) the in-game expositor, have to work against a rather underused but interestingly evil Van Pelt (Bobby Cannavale) to return a jewel that he’s stolen from a towering sculpture of a jaguar and lift the curse that has fallen across the land of Jumanji.
The story is slight, and there’s little peril — each gamer gets three lives, so it’s clear that, even if one were to, say, fall off a cliff into a river, they won’t die. But what makes the film work surprisingly well is the casting. Johnson is, increasingly, an impossibly engaging screen presence, able to lift even films that otherwise should fall flat, last year’s Baywatch a case in point. He should, by rights, be an utterly preposterous thing, all monstrous muscles and stretched sleeves, but he’s managed to make the leap that Arnold Schwarzenegger has never quite pulled off, going from po-faced action to utterly charming comedy and adventure with a wit and a charm that are hard not to enjoy. Black manages to play 17-year-old teenage-girl ditz and shallowness with wit and affection, rather than simple snark and mock, and lifts his turn above simple comic relief and penis-envy jokes. Gillan does a fine job of a relatively underwritten character, but when she’s given a comic turn toward the end of the film, she delivers. But she’ll always be Amy Pond, and even though her midwestern generic American accent doesn’t slip, it’s hard to watch her and not expect something, just a little something, Scottish from her. It’s not Gillan’s fault: she was so strong, for so long, in Doctor Who — Amy remains by far the strongest of the New Who companions, and the story arcs that she, Matt Smith’s Doctor, Rory and River got were the best the show’s ever been — that it’s going to take a long time for her to truly leave the Tardis behind. But Jumanji is a strong step out of Doctor Who’s shadow, and she has, clearly, a long and interesting career ahead of her. Less impressive is Hart, who makes the most of a slight role, Finbar largely there to make up the numbers, but he’s a little one-note, rarely moving far away from wide-eyed and high-voiced.
It’s not entirely clear that the original Jumanji needed remaking, or re-imagining, or a sequel, but films clearly don’t need to be necessary to be quite enjoyable.