Still from 2017's "Jumanji."

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle January 15, 2018        

Despite running a little on the long side, 2017’s Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is a zippy action comedy that’s perhaps the closest thing we have to a summer action movie during this nippy winter season. It’s also the best stuck-in-a-video-game thriller since 2001’s Scooby-Doo and the Cyber Chase.

 

Like its 1995 counterpart, which also revolved around a game named Jumanji, Welcome to the Jungle is driven by characters grappling with a seemingly innocent pastime making its way into their real lives. But the similarities

similarities end there. While 1995’s Jumanji saw a board game infiltrating the everyday, the 2017 one finds characters quite literally getting trapped inside a video game.

 

This time, the people being jerked around by this magical diversion are a quartet of teens stuck in detention. And this bunch is just as mismatched as the one in The Breakfast Club (1985). There’s Spencer (Alex Wolff), a lanky germaphobe who used to be BFFs with muscly football player Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain). There’s also Martha (Morgan Turner), a girl genius so haughty, you’d swear her mean streak were part of a gag. And then there’s Bethany (Madison Iseman), a would-be Instagram celeb who wouldn’t dream of going a day without posting a #IWokeUpLikeThis #Flawless selfie to kick off her morning.

 

But like the kids in that aforementioned teen movie, this posse’s going to have to learn to get along. Today, they’ve been tasked with cleaning up the school’s basement until their detention time’s up, though the principal threatens a longer punishment if the place isn’t spotless by the end of the day. No one really takes him seriously. And this becomes especially true when a television set, as well as a video game console befit with an unfamiliar game called Jumanji, is spotted over in the corner. Figuring they’ll have plenty of time to both play a couple rounds on this foreign game and clean up their school’s mess, this unlikely foursome plugs in. 

 

A couple seconds later, though, and all are starring in their very own episode of The Twilight Zone (1959-’64): thanks to some inexplicable force, the teens have been sucked inside the Jumanji video game, transformed into the characters they chose to embody during phase one.

 

Spencer has been reimagined as a bulky action hero with a boomerang fetish (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson). Fridge is now a puberty-voiced zoologist with a weakness for cake and gratuitous complaining (Kevin Hart). Martha’s an improbably dressed fighter babe (Karen Gillan). Bethany’s a pudgy, bearded cartographer (Jack Black). Their mission? Keep a cursed emerald out of the hands of a rugged archvillain (Bobby Cannavale) and return it to its rightful place. The catch? You only have three lives to do so. Lose your last one, and you die.

 

The movie, of course, never gets to that point, and it shouldn’t need to: This is a frisky, cheeky comic thriller exercise. The film’s title is clearly a tribute to the ubiquitous Guns N' Roses song of the same name, and the movie in store is about as equally lovable. Fun and games are here, and so are sexy girls and bright lights. The whole “you’re gonna diiiiieee” part’s delivered with a wink. 

 

It’s a rollicking good time. The stars are in their element (Black’s a particular blast as a materialistic teenage girl trapped in the body of a sweaty, bespectacled potato). The comedy’s as sharpened and self-referential as the miniature dramatic breaks are perfectly over-the-top. The action’s exaggerated and sometimes hysterical. What more could you want from the theater on a freezing cold Saturday evening? Consider this a nice break from all the emotionally heavy soon-to-be Oscar pics. B+

This review also appeared in The Daily.