***1/2 out of ****
Rated PG-13
(for adventure action, suggestive content, and some language)
Released: December 20, 2017
Runtime: 119 minutes
Directed by: Jake Kasdan
Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Jack Black, Karen Gillan, Nick Jonas, Alex Wolff, Morgan Turner, Se’Darius Blain, Madison Iseman, Bobby Cannavale, Rhys Darby

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Sometimes the studios get it right, and sometimes audiences actually do, too.

I finally caught up with Jumanji: Welcome To The Jungle recently, long after it had become the biggest money-maker in Sony studios history (yes, that includes the James Bond franchise). Thanks to a top-notch discount theater with digital projection, surround sound, and cushy seats, I was even able to experience it in a first-rate theater environment for a mere three bucks.

Not only could I see what people had been flocking to, and why, but I saw it almost instantly.

Ready Player One may be the big homage to 80s pop culture but, in both style and spirit, it’s the Jumanji reboot that feels like the throwback to Amblin adventures from a generation ago.

And who better than to conjure that magic for a new generation than director Jake Kasdan, the son of Empire Strikes Back and Raiders of the Lost Ark screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan? Son Jake didn’t just grow up on the movies that so many people loved; he grew up around them.

Now he’s made another one just like them, with some Jurassic-like frights for good measure. Composer Henry Jackman seems to draw inspiration from the same generational well, too, of old John Williams, James Horner, and Alan Silvestri scores.

The success of this relaunch wasn’t readily apparent. In fact, the initial reaction on social media to the news that Robin Williams would be replaced by The Rock was met with the standard, petulant “you’re ruining my childhood” snark. And granted, tagging on a subtitle stolen from an 80s hair band song didn’t instill confidence to expect something fresh or original.

But instead of ruining our childhoods, the new Jumanji recaptures them.

Working from a script by two writing teams – Chris McKenna & Erik Sommers (Spider-Man: Homecoming), plus Scott Rosenberg (several big 90s action movies) and Jeff Pinkner (genre TV from Alias to Fringe) – Jumanji: Welcome To The Jungle is an inspired action-comedy that tugs at the heartstrings, imbued with coming-of-age maturation.

Structurally, to shift from an old board game to an old video game expands the entire scope, helping diffuse the possibility of being a tired retread. Kasdan and the writers have fun playing with video game conventions but in really smart, clever ways, not just satirizing them or inverting them but also using them to raise dramatic stakes.

The other brilliant stroke is to create heroes that allow the leads to play against type. When high school teenagers are sucked into an old Sega style game cartridge and console, it causes an insecure academic to take on the form of Dwayne Johnson, a big football player to be compacted into the shorter Kevin Hart, a popular high school vapid hottie to become a chubby Jack Black, and a high strung but insecure nerd girl to become a Lara Croft-like Karen Gillan.

Johnson and Black really milk the full potential out of this mystically digitized cross-pollination of personalities, displaying a broad range of comedic instincts and timing, but the material they’re given in the script is so rich, too. Hart provides a lot of laughs as well, even if more predictably, and Bobby Cannavale is effectively creepy in a limited villain archetype that could live in a Goonies or Gremlins world.

The real hook here, however (and of all things), is the character played by Nick Jonas, named Alex. He’s someone that the main foursome meets in the game world. At first Alex appears to be a brilliantly-plotted macguffin, which honestly would’ve worked within that stock limitation, but then it’s in Alex that the film deepens and expands.

Narratively and thematically, he becomes the film’s heart, soul, and driving moral purpose. Jonas, too, wields a highly appealing screen presence. When you’re getting teary-eyed at the end, it’s because of Alex’s arc and the arc of the other characters that he helped to catalyze.

Kasdan shoots the action with style, flair, and fun, staging immensely satisfying set pieces one after the next, and juicing several scenes with some electrified motorcycle stunt driving. Kasdan also brings out the best in character moments, giving them their proper emotional focus and due (and not just for perfunctory feels), sold with earnest sincerity and without apology.

Packed with laughs, thrills, and sentiment (yes, those were my tears), Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is the kind of movie I loved as a kid. Not only is it exciting to see that kind of movie get greenlit and made today, but it’s legitimately encouraging see that it can still pack in blockbuster-size crowds. It’s enough to give you faith again in the tastes of Hollywood and the hoi polloi.

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