First things first: Jack Black, Dwayne Johnson, Karen Gillan, and Kevin Hart, in that order, are the whole set of reasons to see Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle. If none of those names stir any kind of pleasure in your heart, or worse still, if those names raise your hackles, it's probably safest to ignore every single word of the following review. Because while I try to be a good and objective film critic, it's quickly getting to the point where Dwayne Johnson appearing in a lighthearted comedy-adventure is good for a three-star review from me even if it the film has literally the worst screenplay ever filmed.

Welcome to the Jungle does not, at least, have that. In fact, of the two Jumanji films that have been made, it is easily the best in pretty much every possible way: the 1995 Robin Williams vehicle that this film addresses in the most glancing, invisible ways it can while still functioning as a sequel is, as I recall, one of the more annoying, clamorous films Williams made during the 1990s, and that is an especially annoying, clamorous population of movies. I will concede that its bad CGI is better by 1995 standards than Welcome to the Jungle's bad CGI is by 2017 standards, and that is the last I will bother comparing the two. The new film uses the title to get its foot in the door, and employs a heavily modified version of the same conceptual hook, but otherwise it's absolutely doing its own thing.

That own thing starts with a prologue in 1996, when a teenage boy (Mason Guccione) finds the magic board game Jumanji, and when he elects not to play it, it transmogrifies into a video game. One flash of green light later, and he goes missing, attaining the status of urban legend over the next twenty years. It's a solid opening for a 22-years-later sequel; if you've seen the original, it has a distinct "it's happening again" vibe, and if you haven't, it's just a peculiar mystery to be explored over the next two hours.

Skipping ahead to 2016, we meet four high school students, all of them about to end up in detention together: nerd Spencer (Alex Wolff), who has helped his onetime friend, school athlete Fridge (Ser'Darius Blain), cheat on a paper; sullen, quiet, athletics-averse Martha (Morgan Turner), who mouths off to the gym teacher in a rare moment of open self-expression; and vapid Bethany (Madison Iseman), who got involved in a phone call during a quiz. Every last one of them is the purest clichΓ© imaginable, please note, and there's really nothing in these opening scenes to obviate how much that's the case. It's only when they're dumped into an old storage room and find that same video game console, now gathering dust, that the film picks up much energy at all, because it's at that point that the teens, looking to delay the work their principal had assigned them, decide to boot up the old game. And they're immediately sucked into the world of Jumanji, a video game set in jungle valley where each of them inhabits the body of a caricatured avatar, with maxed-out irony in the pairings: Spencer becomes the hyper-muscled archaeologist Dr. Smolder Bravestone (Johnson), Fridge becomes the tiny weakling Franklin "Mouse" Finbar (Hart), Martha becomes the martial arts sexpot Ruby Roundhouse (Gillan), and Bethany becomes the overweight cartographer Prof. Sheldon "Shelly" Oberon (Black).

Thus ensues three closely-related films. The worst one, by far, is the straightforward jungle adventure, in which the four unwilling players are compelled to fight against the wicked Van Pelt (Bobby Cannavale) for control of a magic gemstone that controls the future of Jumanji. Jake Kasdan is a comedy director of some admirable gifts - his Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story is one of the few 21st Century American comedies I love unreservedly - but incorporating action sequences turns out not to be one of them. And the largely obvious CGI (there's a good-looking hippo, some okay-looking rhinos, a poor-looking snake, and some utterly hideous jaguars) doesn't help matters on that front at all. Frankly, it feels like the action bits and pieces were included for no reason other than that they had to be, out of some obligation to a marketing sector. Certainly, the sequence at the end where it all turns into a pro forma chain of setpieces is easily the weakest stretch of the whole movie, including the trite framework with the teens.

The other two movies are both comedies. One is a blithe parody of video game logic, with the four characters able to create pop-ups of their strengths and weaknesses (Dr. Bravestone's weaknesses: none. Mouse's weaknesses: cake), and non-player characters rattling off a tiny number of lines in an endless loop, one of them played by the always-welcome Rhys Darby. It's charming, if easy. The other is the equally easy spectacle of watching Johnson, Hart, Black, and Gillan playing teenagers trapped in weird bodies (so: teenagers), and this does in fact turn out to be virtually the only source of humor, conflict, drama, or plot momentum that the film ever attempts to mine.

The limitations of Welcome to the Jungle are thus obvious, and the only thing I can really say on its behalf is that it's probably the best-case scenario for a concept that was never going to be capable of being more than an appealing family comedy (and one that, as a family comedy, should maybe have aimed more for the PG rating than the PG-13; there are a couple of dick jokes that feel at-odds with the rest of the film). Which brings me back to the four leads who give, as God is my witness, the best quartet of comedy performances I've seen in anything this year. There's a lot of stereotype flying around here, of course; "Jack Black plays a shallow Mean Girl" isn't a prompt that's going to reveal any shocking layers of human psychology. But there is, if you'll allow me the distinction, a difference between Black foregrounding himself as a comic player, and Black playing Bethany's frustration and confusion and the character growth that arises from that. And it's actually the latter thing that happens both in his and Gillan's performances. Hart comes the closest to just playing his usual persona, and Johnson is playing a variation on the big guileless kid role that he has played in the past - in fact, there's a lot in their work in this film that very closely mimics their last onscreen pairing, Central Intelligence from 2016.* But even they're still mostly working from the characters, not just winking and serving up jokes.

And that's ultimately what sells Welcome to the Jungle. It is, for all it has an astronomically high concept, a character-driven comedy, and the four leads commit to those characters and their small-scale teenage crises without any detectable trace of self-consciousness or looking down on the material. It's nice, sweet, and funny, achieving virtually everything it appears to care about (I don't think it cared about working as an action picture), and in the process is the most uniformly satisfying popcorn movie I've seen in the last third of 2017.




*The aforementioned Johnson comedy that I gave three stars despite it having the literal worst screenplay.