When “Jumanji” came out, in 1995, one’s first impulse was to consign it to the increasingly overstuffed file marked “Junky Cheeseball Robin Williams Movies.” The film’s one true distinction was its jungle beasts. The lions and monkeys and elephants and rhinos and zebras, rampaging through a kitchen, were brought to life through the then-novel miracle of digital imagery; this was two years after “Jurassic Park,” but the technology still felt bold. As an adventure, “Jumanji” was deluxe magical trash, but its creatures, so fearsomely alive, seemed to be part of some brave new menagerie.
“Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” is just trash, with nothing magical about it. A quartet of high-school kids gets sucked into a video-game-console update of the Jumanji board game, landing in the most generic of jungles — and that’s where they stay, except for one detour into the most generic of fake Middle Eastern bazaars. Whatever the rules of this particular game, they remain mostly unexplained and largely beside the point. It’s like watching the lamest Indiana Jones sequel ever imagined, minus Indiana Jones.
In his place, our four heroes morph into video-game avatars played by a tossed salad of movie stars, who don’t generate adventure-comedy chemistry so much as they do loudly clashing styles of showboating. The film’s notion of wit is to have Spencer (Alex Wolff), a stringbean gamer, metamorphose into an explorer-archaeologist played by Dwayne Johnson, who flinches and says “Oy vey!” like the nerd he still is inside. If Johnson, and the film’s script, had truly run with this idea, it might have been funny, but Johnson, for the most part, is just Johnson: too committed to his image to tweak it much.
One of the other kids is a hulking jock nicknamed “The Refrigerator” (Ser’Darius Blain), and the wears-out-its-welcome-in-10-seconds joke is that he gets turned into a zoologist played by Kevin Hart, thereby losing several feet of height. The other two high schoolers are female, so it may seem odd that one of them, Bethany (Madison Iseman), turns into a cryptographer played by Jack Black, but once you’ve seen Black, in tweedy hunter’s garb and big round spectacles, do his mincing impersonation of a high-school trollop (very Meanest Girl of 2003), it no longer seems odd, just vaguely embarrassing. The other girl, Martha (Morgan Turner), becomes Ruby Roundhouse, a commando in a halter top played by the charming Karen Gillan, who winds up playing straight woman to the three walking icons of paycheck shtick.
In “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle,” each of the characters has a trio of bars tattooed on his or her wrist, which means that in the game universe of Jumanji they all get three lives. Jack Black is eaten, in one very quick bite, by a gnashing hippo, and moments later — voilà! — he pops down from the sky. Johnson gets tossed off a cliff, then pops down as well. Hart eats pound cake and explodes (for some reason), and so on. Gillan, in the meantime, does some fight-dancing to Big Mountain’s reggae version of “Baby, I Love Your Way.” Did I mention that the four are trying to wrest a giant glowing emerald from the movie’s bad guy — Bobby Cannavale, with no role to play — so that they can restore it to the forehead of the looming mountain sculpted into a jaguar?
Excitement! Suspense! Childlike innocence! Ingeniously staged action set pieces! These are a few of the things you will not find, anywhere, in “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle.” The one performer in the film who establishes his own relaxed rhythm, and stays in it, is Nick Jonas, proving once again that he’s got quick-draw acting chops. The movie has snakes and a crocodile pit and a scorpion slithering out of Bobby Cannavale’s mouth. It’s supposed to be a video-ized board game come to life, but really, it’s just a bored game.