What threatened to be cynical exploitation of an elegant, critically lauded picture book instead proves to be something more palatable in the rollicking, if loosely adapted, “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle.”
Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, and Jack Black might not seem the likeliest casting for breathing life into the rich black-and-white pastels of Beverly-based illustrator Chris Van Allsburg (“The Polar Express”). But the group’s thematically, comedically broad inversion of the source material is consistently entertaining, and squeezes in some nicely played character growth to boot.
Some might remember that Robin Williams’s 1995 “Jumanji” feature also took liberties with this Pandora’s box tale of a mystical board game, particularly in rendering the zoological chaos that it expectorated into the real world. But the quasi-sequel gets into wholesale changes straightaway, scoffing at the fustiness of board games, and imagining that Jumanji morphs itself into a video game to maintain its dark allure.
Those sucked in this time include nerdy high schooler Spencer (Alex Wolff, “Patriots Day”), class jock Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain), selfie-absorbed Bethany (Madison Iseman), and standoffishly brainy Martha (Morgan Turner). The four stumble across the forgotten game console during a “Breakfast Club” detention session in a storeroom as dusty as their respective archetypes. When this group plays, though, they don’t unleash Jumanji’s mayhem, they’re trapped inside it, at least until they can strategize a way out.
Enter the kids’ avatars, i.e., our marquee names. Johnson’s Spencer, amusingly, can’t seem to locate his inner macho man as a musclebound archaeologist. Fridge (Hart) feels more like a mini-fridge as Spencer’s diminutive sidekick. Martha (surprisingly funny Karen Gillan, “Guardians of the Galaxy”) wonders why she’s in short-shorts for tropical combat duty. (For the same reason the board game aesthetic got tossed, silly!) Finally, there’s Black putting on a popular-girl fey voice as Bethany’s outwardly tweedy — and male — avatar-by-chance. It’s a joke that ends up getting great mileage, and as casually mainstream a screen treatment of gender fluidity as you’ll see this season.
Director Jake Kasdan (“Bad Teacher”) coaxes crisp interplay from all four leads, getting more from Johnson and Hart’s scenes together than “Central Intelligence” did. Kasdan also lends random yet structured game-world authenticity to a rhinos-versus-helicopter sequence and other action, and delivers some inspired creep-outs featuring the movie’s villain (Bobby Cannavale, in an intriguing less-is-more turn as a snake/spider/millipede charmer). It’s hardly Van Allsburg’s book, but’s it’s wild.
JUMANJI: WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE
Directed by Jake Kasdan. Written by Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers, Scott Rosenberg, Jeff Pinkner, based on the book by Chris Van Allsburg. Starring Dwayne Johnson, Jack Black, Kevin Hart, Karen Gillan. Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs. 121 minutes. PG-13 (adventure action, suggestive content, some language).Tom Russo can be reached at email@example.com.