MOVIE BUFF-ET: ‘Jumanji’ plays it too safe for its own good

Columbia Pictures

“Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” turns the premise of the original 1995 film on its head.

Instead of the board game escaping into the real world, this time the real-world players are transported inside Jumanji the video game as adventure-character avatars.

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That concept reminds me a lot of the Saturday-morning “Dungeons and Dragons” cartoon from the 1980s, where a group of stereotypical kids get trapped in the game. For its time, “D&D” was a decent cartoon. It was released on DVD a decade or so ago and unlike many of the cartoons I was weened on, it’s actually still watchable.

So, no, the movie isn’t all that original, but it’s still watchable for adults and probably great fun for tweens. For those wondering, it doesn’t require you to have prior knowledge of the original movie. This film is as much a reboot as it is a sequel.

The film, directed by Jake Kasdan, relies on teenage social stereotypes of the pretty girl Bethany (Madison Iseman), the nerd Spencer (Alex Wolff), the jock Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain), and the wallflower Martha (Morgan Turner) who get transported into the game during a detention-hall session.

Yes, it’s a less angsty but more fantastic version of “The Breakfast Club.”

Inside the game, the characters basically become their opposites. Spencer the nerd becomes a muscular adventurer, played by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. Fridge the Jock transforms into the diminutive sidekick, played by Kevin Hart. Martha the bookworm morphs into a butt-kicking beauty, played by Karen Gillan, while Bethany the pretty girl becomes a rotund, middle-aged guy, played by Jack Black. To get back to the real world, they must work together to defeat the video game level by level.

The most interesting aspect of the movie is that Johnson, Hart, Gillan, and Black must play their roles against type as the teen stereotypes set up at the beginning of the film.

Johnson, Hart, and Gillan all do credible, funny work, but Black practically steals the movie playing the self-absorbed Bethany, who dotes on her looks, not only dealing with being fat and ugly, but also being a dude.

Nick Jonas plays a character that has been stuck in the game for two decades, and Bobby Cannavale is wasted as a superfluous villain, who’s not given enough to do.

I somewhat enjoyed the interplay between the four teens outside the game, and Black, Johnson, Hart, and Gillan had a warm, charismatic chemistry between them that was enjoyable. However, the movie became tedious as it riffed off much better adventure movies.

“Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” is a fairly safe adventure film for a family outing, but there’s not really enough fresh meat on the bone to please more well-versed adventure movie fans.

(PG-13) 1 hr. 59 min.
Grade: C

Classic Corner

Warner Bros.

Christmas in Connecticut

One of my favorite actresses from the Golden Age of Hollywood is Barbara Stanwyck. Her versatility and likability stood out during a four-decade career on the big screen and two more on television in a number of shows and mini series, including one of the better television Westerns of the 1960s “The Big Valley.”

Was it a rip off of “Bonanza?”

Yes, but “Big Valley” still was a good show that introduced many of us old timers to Lee Majors and Linda Evans. But I digress.
Stanwyck was a huge star, appearing in more than 85 films and earning four Academy Award nominations for best actress in “Stella Dallas” (1937), “Ball of Fire” (1941), “Double Indemnity” (1944), and “Sorry, Wrong Number “ (1948). She received an honorary Oscar for her lifetime contribution to film in 1982 and won a Golden Globe for her role in the 1983 mini series “The Thornbirds.”

I first began to appreciate Stanwyck’s work in a couple of Christmas comedies, “Christmas in Connecticut” (1945) co-starring Dennis Morgan and “Remember the Night” (1940) co-starring Fred MacMurray, who played opposite of her in “Double Indemnity,” perhaps both’s best film.

Turner Classic Movies airs both Christmas movies back-to-back Friday, starting at 7 p.m. central time. “Christmas in Connecticut also airs at 3 p.m. Sunday as part of a day-long Christmas movie marathon.

Both films are funny and romantic. They basically set the template for all the Hallmark, Lifetime, and Ion romantic comedies that run almost 24/7 during the holiday season.

“Christmas in Connecticut” is a riot and my favorite of the two. Stanwyck plays a columnist for “Smart Housekeeping” magazine during World War II, but she is a fraud. Actually, she’s a single, city girl, but has passed herself off a homemaker with a husband, child, and farm. When her publisher (Sydney Greenstreet) proposes or rather demands that she entertain him and war hero (Dennis Morgan) at her farm for an old-fashioned Christmas, Stanwyck must rely on her wits and her friends to bail her out of the impossible situation.

Remember the Night

In “Remember the Night,” MacMurray plays a district attorney who is prosecuting Stanwyck’s character for shoplifting around the Christmas holiday. When the trial is continued until after the holiday, MacMurray is cajoled into taking custody of Stanwyck so she doesn’t have spend Christmas in the clink. He intends to drop her off at her mother’s, but winds up taking her to his family home for the holidays.