JU­MANJI: WEL­COME TO THE JUN­GLE

Empire (Australasia) - - On Screen - CHRIS HE­WITT

OUT NOW RATED PG / 119 MINS

DI­REC­TOR Jake Kas­dan CAST Dwayne John­son, Jack Black, Karen Gil­lan, Kevin Hart, Madi­son Ise­man, Alex Wolff

PLOT Four teenagers serv­ing de­ten­tion are sucked into a video game called Ju­manji. Find­ing them­selves em­body­ing avatars, they must find a way back to the real world be­fore they run out of lives.

SO, IT’S COME to this: Hol­ly­wood’s in­creas­ingly des­per­ate search for IP — any IP — that can be mined for a few cop­pers has led to Ju­manji. The 1995 Joe Johnston orig­i­nal, based on Chris Van Alls­burg’s book, is per­haps best re­mem­bered for ground­break­ing (at the time) CGI and a fun Robin Wil­liams lead turn, but it was built on the fas­ci­nat­ing idea of a mis­chievous board game that comes to life. That’s a con­cept good enough to gen­er­ate a dozen movies, so here we are with a very be­lated se­quel. It’s cyn­i­cal enough to make you roll your eyes, so here’s some­thing to wash away that weari­ness: Ju­manji: Wel­come To The Jun­gle is some­thing of a quiet de­light.

Of course, board games are not sexy enough any­more, so Jake Kas­dan and his team of writ­ers get that out of the way in a pro­logue with a sly com­ment on Hol­ly­wood’s need to re­boot things, hav­ing the sen­tient Ju­manji trans­form it­self into a Nin­tendo-style video game. It’s a fun idea — once our he­roes are sucked into the game’s world, it al­lows Kas­dan and co to have a lot of fun with video game tropes; the idea that the movie’s char­ac­ters only have three in-game lives not only nicely im­bues the film with some­thing close to stakes, it al­lows the big-name cast to live-die-re­peat in a se­ries of in­ven­tive set-pieces.

But it’s that cast who make the film such a pleas­ant sur­prise. Af­ter get­ting to know their vaguely Break­fast Club real-world coun­ter­parts (nerd, jock, princess, bas­ket case) in the first 20 min­utes, the switch to Ju­manji’s jun­gle world ports them into avatars and un­leashes the big names, do­ing just enough with the archetypes they play to keep things in­ter­est­ing for them and us. So the gan­gly nerd (Wolff) be­comes Dwayne John­son’s Dr Smolder Brave­stone; im­pos­ing US foot­ball player Fridge (Ser’dar­ius Blain) winds up as a mini-fridge in the teeny-tiny shape of Kevin Hart; the bas­ket case (Mor­gan Turner’s Martha) be­comes hot­pants-wear­ing sex ob­ject Ruby Round­house; and vac­u­ous It Girl Bethany (Ise­man) winds up as her worst night­mare: a tubby brain­box named Shelly Oberon (Black). Watch­ing them spar ver­bally (and some­times phys­i­cally) with each other, while play­ing against type, is a con­stant joy.

Ad­mit­tedly, there aren’t a ton of bel­ly­laughs, rather a stream of con­stant chuck­les, but it feels churl­ish to quib­ble: chem­istry like this is very rare. So it’s a shame when the group’s ranks are bol­stered by a new mem­ber (iden­tity redacted), who doesn’t quite pos­sess the com­edy chops of his coun­ter­parts.

Weirdly, for a film in which any­thing can hap­pen due to the ‘liv­ing video game’ con­ceit, it all gets a lit­tle pre­dictable (you could set your watch by the scenes of emo­tional growth that fol­low ma­jor ac­tion beats), while Bobby Can­navale’s scor­pion-lov­ing bad guy is so in­con­se­quen­tial that they prob­a­bly should have con­signed him to a cut scene. But when the main quar­tet are to­gether, bick­er­ing, dance-fight­ing or eat­ing too much cake, this is a lovely wel­come.

VER­DICT A con­sis­tently in­ven­tive and chuck­le­some rein­ven­tion of the Ju­manji con­cept. Okay, so it coasts on the charm of its lead quar­tet, but when there’s this much charm, that’s no bad thing.

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