'Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle': Whoa, a reboot that isn't lame?

The original Jumanji was one of the first movies to sell itself on its use computer generated images — folks lined up in 1995 to see the then-novel spectacle of rhinos rampaging through suburbia.

As CGI has proliferated, though, attitudes have changed — rhinos at Red Lobster? Dinosaurs at Disneyland? Seen it. Audiences have come by these jaded attitudes honestly — studios often use the technology lazily, substituting second-rate spectacle for story.

In this context, the Jumanji reboot Welcome to the Jungle is a happy surprise — a movie that turns out to be good (almost clean) fun, and that is much more interested in character and comedy than special effects.

The premise is reasonably clever: four archetypal high school kids (a jock, a boy nerd, a girl nerd, a popular blond) get sucked into a video game (updated from the central board game from both the 1995 original and the children’s book it’s based on), where they become the game’s character avatars. Thus, they find themselves in a real jungle, but one in which characters and creatures behave in ways that conform to familiar rules of video games.

The movie’s surprisingly fertile comic twist: In the game, the teens exist as characters who are the inversion of their real-world personalities. A husky football player is reduced to pint-size sidekick (Kevin Hart). The boy nerd becomes a muscle-bound action hero (Dwayne Johnson); the girl nerd a Lara Croft-ish superbabe (Guardians of the Galaxy‘s Karen Gillan); and the looks-obsessed blond becomes chubby and bookish, and a dude (Jack Black).

The A-list actors have a grand old time with this. Hart finds new ways to riff on his little-man-in-a-big-world shtick. He plays the in-game character with the fewest strengths and the most weaknesses. Johnson gets another chance to provide a good-natured spoof of his hypermasculine form, managing to sell us on the idea that there is a cowering beta-male teen inside his hulking frame.

Black does an amusing interpretation of a teen girl stuck in the body of a “middle-aged fat guy.” This is also where the movie ends up earning its PG-13 rating. Or should I say Pee-G. “She” is fascinated by her male equipment and thrilled to be liberated from restrooms for number one. It almost makes up for the loss of her smartphone (they don’t exist in the game), and even that sacrifice prompts some reflection on her part — she comes to see that being without it causes her to develop “other powers,” like thinking.

The movie starts slowly and is a little long, and there are times when judicious editing would have helped the momentum and added comic punch. But if the movie lets the jokes run long, it keeps the special effects in their place. A scene of Black being eaten by a hippo (not a spoiler, each character has three in-game lives) is an efficient, effective two seconds.

MOVIES

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle

  • Directed by Jake Kasdan. With Kevin Hart, Dwayne Johnson, Jack Black, Karen Gillan Nick Jonas and Bobby Cannavale. Distributed by Columbia Pictures.
  • Run time: 2 hours, 2 mins.
  • Parent's guide: PG-13 (adult themes)
  • Playing at: Area theaters