‘Jumanji’ Family Fare with a Wholesome Lesson ✮✮✮

“Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” is strictly family fare with a wholesome lesson solidly delivered by The Rock and his band of buddies. There’s romance and what could have-beens, CGI dare-doings and man-eating rhinos, but ultimately it is about bonding outside of the classic high school cliques.

Directed by Joe Johnston (“Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” and “Captain America: The First Avenger”), this stand-alone sequel movie to the 1995 Robin Williams-vehicle (“Jumanji”) begins in 1996 with a teenager named Alex Vreeke (Mason Gussione). While jogging on the beach, his father found a board game and gives it to Alex, but Alex puts it aside because “Nobody plays board games any more.” The magical Jumanji slyly changes overnight into a video game and Alex puts the mysterious cartridge in his video game console and something mysterious happens. From outside the beautiful two-story white house, we see lights flashing in the bedroom.

Twenty years later, we meet another video game geek, high school student Spencer Gilpin (Alex Wolff). Spencer is playing a multiplayer game while writing a term paper for his “friend,” the now big-man on campus football player Anthony “Fridge” Johnson (Ser’Darius Blain). Spencer thinks he’s smarter than his teachers, but he’s caught and both he and Fridge end up in detention with Fridge, not ashamed at his laziness, but angry at his former grade school friend for messing up his opportunities.

Elsewhere, is the self-absorbed Bethany Walker (Madison Iseman) who is most concerned about taking the perfect morning selfie before she gets to class. In class, the teacher catches her using her phone during a test and Bethany gets detention.

In gym class, bookworm Martha Kaply (Morgan Turner) objects to being involved in any physical activity because it won’t help her get into college and who would want to be something like a physical education teacher (Missi Pyle)?  Martha is then ready for her date with fate in detention.

In detention, Principal Bentley (Marc Evan Jackson) takes them to a basement where piles of magazines need to have their staples removed in order to make them ready for recycling, saying, there is “no better place for self-reflection than detention.”  But there are other things in the basement (that has, to Bethany’s dismay, no cellphone reception). Fridge finds an old game named Jumanji and Spencer sets it up. There are five players and each of the four chooses one of the four roles available and this is “a game for those who seek to find a way to leave the world behind.”

Geek Gilpin becomes hunkier-than-Indiana-Jones archaeologist Dr. Smolder Bravestone (Johnson) who has many strengths, including a smolder and no weaknesses. Bethany mistakenly thought Shelly was a girl, but Professor Shelly (for Sheldon and not Michelle) Oberon is a middle-aged, overweight man (Jack Black) who also happens to be a cartographer, cryptographer, archaeologist and paleontologist.

The football player loses a few inches to become Moose Finbar (Kevin Hart), a zoologist who is Bravestone’s sidekick and weapon carrier with a weakness for cake. The awkward wallflower bookworm becomes Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan) who specializes in dance fighting.

After falling down into the world, they learn their first less.  One of them being eaten by hippos and returning in another drop down from the sky. But that can’t go on forever. Within the game, they have only three lives. The foursome are picked up by Nigel, a non-player character) who sets them up to begin the game by giving them a letter. Bravestone’s nemesis is his former colleague John Hardin Van Pelt who removed a gleaming green gemstone, the Jaguar’s Eye, and brought a curse upon the land of Jumanji.

They also get a map that can only be read by Professor Shelly and after each test they move up a level. The map happens to have a torn corner and they’ll have to venture into a bazaar to find a missing piece, but  Van Pelt’s henchmen seem to be everywhere and when they aren’t being chased by the motorcycle riding baddies, they have to watch out for the local jungle life. What you might know about animals in the real world doesn’t necessarily hold true in the land of Jumanji. Rhinos might be doing better in this world if they were man-eating. Along the way, they’ll find evidence of one Alan Parrish and why teamwork is essential.

Seeing The Rock pretend he’s a skinny nerd suitably impressed by having muscles, but not happy about the bald part speaks to every teen and adult’s inferiority complex. Black’s take on prissy, privileged princess passing on how to get your flirt on to Gillan’s Ruby Roundhouse shows just how hard it is to be a girl. There are moments that could become queasy so easy, but director Jake Kasdan avoids those potholes along the way. The story as written by Kasdan, Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers, Scott Rosenberg and Jeff Pinkner is entertaining, not too scary for older children–depending on how you feel about animals eating people), but it does have cartoon-level violence that mimics video games. “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” does end on a feel-good note with finality. Will this be the last Jumanji? I doubt it, but this stand-alone doesn’t promise a future for these characters in the Jumanji franchise.

Lessons learned are to detach from one’s cellphone, to go out into the real world and to reach across differences to help each other. Think of how all of those things are universals except for that cellphone problem. What a difference 20 years makes.

“Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” opened on 20 December 2017 and is rated PG-13 for suggestive language, violence and frightening sequences.

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