That watching the new Jumanji feels like watching someone else play a video game is fitting, since that's literally what the movie makes you do. The update on the 1995 film transforms the board game into an old video game, and it is your privilege to watch the characters play it. In this version, the four principals — a high school nerd, a football player, a misfit, and a Hot Girl™ — are supposed to remove staples from old magazines in detention. Instead, they plug in the game and choose their avatars. The joke — the long, repeated, endlessly riffed-on joke — is how poorly their avatars match their "real" identities. The nerd becomes Dwayne Johnson, the misfit becomes the hot girl, the hot girl becomes Jack Black, and the football player turns into the Kevin Hart. Get it?
It's not a bad premise, but it's more winky than magical or scary, and it does exactly what you'd expect. This Jumanji is less a movie about getting trapped in a universe whose rules are unknown and more about laughing at people trapped in different bodies. I mean it when I say the movie feels like its metaphor: Watching someone else play a videogame is a pretty, um, vicarious form of fun. Jumanji has great graphics and an exhausting amount of meta-commentary (did you know The Rock has big muscles?); it makes fun of the random incentives and enemies that are de rigueur in video games and make little sense outside them. But the result is so far from immersive that not even the characters stuck there ever quite sink into its world. Bobby Cannavale does what he can to bring some texture to the game's sour and flat insect-loving villain (I half-wished this NPC — that's "non-player character" — would turn out to be controlled by somebody real, just so there could be some real tension). And Rhys Darby brings his customary spark to his role as "Nigel," the peppy guide. But the world, save for some truly terrifying hippos, feels too fake to be anything but mildly amusing.
The movie's bright spots are Karen Gillan — who plays Martha, a bright, sarcastic kid filled with secret self-loathing coping with her "sexy" incarnation — and Jack Black, who, despite some generic mincing as Bethany, is a lot more convincing as a pretty teenage girl trapped in his body than Johnson is as a nerd. Hart injects blistering energy into scenes that lack it, but his character makes the least sense. It initially seems like typical character-building stuff ("Fridge" the football star has to serve as a sidekick to the nerdy friend he thinks he's outgrown) but he seems to learn the least, and the friendship story simmering there builds to a crisis that doesn't quite resolve.
Then there's The Rock, who drops hints about a possible presidential run with every new reboot! He did it for Baywatch, he's done it for Jumanji. I look forward to his candidacy once he completes his turn as Westley in The Princess Bride and his inauguration after he plays Sue Ellen Crandell in Don't Tell Mom the Babysitter's Dead.
Look: The Rock is a lot of fun. He just can't do anything but be The Rock. Johnson is frankly terrible at playing a nerdy kid trapped in a bigger body; a performance that's set up to stage adolescent alienation and confusion and fear keeps getting sucked instead into Johnson's winky self-worship. And that's fine, but, well, it's been done a time or two. Jumanji, like Baywatch, like pretty much every other movie he's starred in, collapses at some point into The Rock being The Rock. And Jumanji supports that to its detriment: Each player character has strengths and weaknesses except for Johnson's character. It's hilarious (really) until you think about how much that joke hobbles the game, and the movie.
But the truth is, none of that matters. Because Jumanji isn't really about interpreting clues or developing strategies or problem-solving or teamwork. It's not about magic or ecology or the intersection between two worlds. It's a comedy about body-swapping. Seen that way, it's a light, amusing, and pretty forgettable romp. You won't feel much, you probably won't forget you're sitting in a theater watching a group of people play a game, but it's fun, and funny, and you get to see the guy who teases us with his possible presidency to sell tickets pretend to be scared.