‘Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle’ is uncharted territory, offering surprising laughs, decent action

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Grade: 3.0/5.0

Remember that iconic ‘90s film, “Jumanji”? Do Robin Williams in a loincloth, CGI monkeys and game instructions given exclusively in verse ring any bells? If you can’t remember the original film, that’s OK, because the team behind “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” doesn’t either.

These two films are remarkably different, and this latest installment does little to connect them, save for the occasional reference. This sequel, while amusing to watch, should have just dropped the first word of its title rather than ride on the coattails of a beloved classic.

The sequel begins quite literally where “Jumanji” left off, with a brief subtitle informing the audience that the year is 1996. Buried underneath a beach lies the infamous wooden box. The board game inexplicably transforms into a video game console before sucking an unsuspecting teenager (Mason Guccione) into the world of Jumanji.

Twenty years later, in a move reminiscent of “The Breakfast Club,” four stereotypical teens find themselves in detention — a jock (Ser’Darius Blain), a nerdy gamer (Alex Wolff), a shy brain (Morgan Turner) and the most popular girl in school (Madison Iseman). They discover Jumanji, get sucked into the video game itself and appear, respectively, as Kevin Hart, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Karen Gillan and Jack Black — avatars within the virtual world. These four very different characters are forced to band together to lift a curse and somehow find their way home.

The film’s references to its original source material are so sparse one wonders why they’re there at all. The original board game is practically non-existent. The rhyming clues that heralded the arrival of a jungle-themed challenge are all but gone. The name “Alan Parrish” (Robin Williams) is mentioned in passing, and the party briefly visits a treehouse — a reminder of Williams’ time spent in the game. Finally, the word “Jumanji” is frequently overstated by the characters as if to assure the audience that the films are linked by more than just a tenuous connection.

That being said, the film still entertains and has its fair share of comedic moments.

Less interested in exploring its board game origins, “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” instead finds most of its humor in poking fun at common tropes within video games themselves. For example, Nigel (Rhys Darby), a “nonplayer character,” regurgitates expository dialogue endlessly. Additionally, each avatar has their own unique strengths and weaknesses that include a talent for making margaritas and a hilarious but surprising weakness to cake. While in a squabble about their high school friendship, The Rock’s character and Hart’s character each end up taking one of each others’ “lives.” As anyone who has ever endured a painful co-op level can attest to, this is perhaps the moment in the film that rings the truest. Part of the reason these jokes land so well is because of the film’s impressive cast, with Hart and Black being the definite standouts.

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Hart steals the spotlight with his stand-up-inspired performance, which audiences are inevitably expecting. His character is physically imposing in “reality,” and most of Hart’s humor leverage the fact that he can no longer rely on his height. Hart’s short stature is the basis of many jokes, most noticeably during the sequence where he’s carried piggy-back style by the Rock as they evade enemy fire.

In similar fashion, Black readily embraces his role as a popular teen inhabiting the body of a “curvy professor,” and the montage in which he teaches Gillan’s character how to talk to boys landed well with the audience. Still, Black’s funniest moments occur between himself and Nick Jonas’ suave pilot character. The romantic tension between these two was undeniably fun to watch, and Black shines as a shallow yet single teenager.

Fans expecting a film faithful to its source material will ultimately be disappointed. The original magic of “Jumanji” simply isn’t there. Instead of participating in the age of the everpresent sequel, it would have been better to blaze new territory without hamstringing themselves with the name “Jumanji.”

“Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” is currently playing at UA Berkeley 7.

Contact Sarah Alford at [email protected].