Review: The laughs in 'Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle' hang low

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For fans of Robin Williams’ original Jumanji (yes, they exist), version 2.0 has just enough mild gags and frenetic adventure set pieces to tap into the brain’s nostalgia center. The new twist, however, comes from its box office-proven cast, which includes Jack Black, Kevin Hart, and Guardians of the Galaxy’s Karen Gillan. But the real draw here, of course, is Dwayne Johnson, who over the past few years, has become Hollywood’s unlikeliest (and highest compensated) A-list star. The artist formerly known as The Rock is undeniably charming, eminently likable, and disarmingly gifted with an eyebrow-cocked one-liner (he’s Roger Moore in the body of Lou Ferrigno), but I wish he’d start choosing his projects a little more judiciously. Welcome to the Jungle is no doubt a step up from this summer’s Baywatch, but it’s a pretty small step.

The joke here — and I use the term loosely — is that the nerdy guy now inhabits the body of Johnson’s Dr. Smolder Bravestone. The beefy jock is now Hart’s pint-sized scaredy cat Moose Finbar. The Sheedy-ish one is now Gillan’s sexy, Lara Croft butt-kicking babe Ruby Roundhouse. And the vain, millennial beauty queen is now…Black’s fey, middle-aged, pot-bellied Professor Shelly Oberon. The fact that she now has a penis is considered the height of hilarity. After some introductory exposition in the form of a safari guide named Nigel (Flight of the Conchords’ Rhys Darby), our four disembodied heroes are tasked with recovering a stolen green jewel and going through a series of deadly labors in order to restore the softball-sized gem to a giant Jaguar statue on the tropical island while outrunning a cartoon villain played by a hambone Bobby Cannavale, who acts like he just tied a ‘20s movie damsel to the railroad tracks. The group is informed that once they complete their quest, they can return to their old bodies and previous, angsty lives.

The film’s follow-the-map and solve-the-riddle odyssey is goosed along by Hart’s better-than-the-rest-of-the-movie motormouth shtick. And Johnson’s nerd-trapped-in-a-superhero-body routine appears more effortless than it must have been. But the whole Jack Black-as-shallow-valley girl gambit is both excruciating and exhausting (not to mention, embarrassingly retrograde). As for Gillan, I’m not sure what director Jake Kasden was going for by dolling the actress up in skimpy outfits and having one of her primary skills be her ability to distract bad guys by being a flirty vixen, but it seems several decades out of date. I don’t want to sound like a joyless crank. Some of this is kind of amusing. But the laughs are strictly of the lowest-hanging-fruit variety. In a sidenote, the Hawaii locations look nice.

The underlying message of the film is that you can’t judge a book by its cover. That these reluctant partners have to work through their differences and become a team. It’s hard to argue with something as well-intentioned as that. But it’s fairly banal, and nothing you haven’t seen (done better) a thousand times before, minus the giant CGI hippos and marauding elephants. Whenever the movie tiptoes up to actually being deeper and funnier and more clever than that, it seems to lose its nerve and doubles down on anvil-to-the-skull slapstick. Welcome to the Jungle isn’t a bad movie. It’s a diverting, mildly amusing, competent bit of big-budget studio product. And maybe those are the stakes we’re now playing for these days. But in the process it manages to pull off something I once would have thought was impossible: It makes the original Jumanji look like a beloved cinema classic. C