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Friday, December 22, 2017

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle

There are some scattered laughs and clever ideas to be found throughout Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, but they can't overshadow the film's core problem, in that there was really no need for a sequel to the 1995 original film.  At the very least, you can say that the filmmakers were not trying to do a rehash here.  They do throw in quite a few new ideas.  And the four lead actors each hold their own, especially Jack Black, who manages to steal most of his scenes from bigger names like Dwayne Johnson and Kevin Hart. 

I think what bothered me the most is that I saw a lot of untapped potential.  This time around, the movie is set inside a video game, instead of being built around a board game.  The film's opening scene, set in 1996, features a bored teenager being given the fabled Jumanji board game by his dad, who finds it buried in the sand.  The kid looks at the game, and shuns it, since no one plays board games anymore.  He then proceeds to pick up his video game controller, and play with that instead.  Somehow, the board game notices this, because in the middle of the night, it's able to magically transform itself into a more appealing form to the cynical teen - a game cartridge.  He puts the cartridge into his game console, and is pulled into his television moments after he starts to play.  So, we learn that the game of Jumanji can adapt to more modern means of entertainment to lure in unsuspecting players.  I imagine that if there is a third movie, it will transform itself from a 1990s video game to a phone app.

We flash forward some 20 years later to the present, where four teens from different walks of life will find themselves drawn into the game as well in due time.  For now, our heroes are the smart and video game-obsessed Spencer (Alex Wolff), popular football jock Fridge (Ser'Darius Blaine), social media addict Bethany (Madison Iseman), and the brainy Martha (Morgan Turner).  Each of them find themselves in after school detention for different reasons, and are ordered by the principal to clean out a dusty old storage room that's set to be renovated.  Somehow, the kids happen to come across a game console with the Jumanji cartridge already inside, and begin to play.  Just like before, all four teens are pulled into the game itself, and this time we get to follow them into the game where they get to become their in-game avatars. 

Here is where the film truly kicks off, and develops some good ideas, while all the while seemingly holding itself back.  In the game world, the four teens become the characters they play in the game.  Spencer becomes a muscle-bound adventurer with every advantage (now played by Dwayne Johnson), Fridge becomes Kevin Hart, giving his usual comedic performance, whose main character trait in the game is to carry the items and weapons that the other characters use, Bethany turns into a pudgy middle aged man with knowledge of ancient jungle cultures (Jack Black), and the mousy Martha is now a Lara Croft-style heroine skilled in martial arts and an inappropriately sexy outfit (Karen Gillan).  The movie does have some fun with the idea of these kids being trapped in these bodies, especially with the idea of Jack Black's character technically being a teenage girl who can't go anywhere without her smartphone, and is oddly fascinated by the new sexual appendage she finds that she now has.

At this point, I started to wait for Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle to kick into gear, and really have some fun with its central idea.  But for me at least, the movie never quite picked up enough steam.  Oh, there are laughs for sure, but they were not as frequent as I was hoping for.  The movie does comes up with some clever ways to represent a real life video game.  Each of the four "players" have three tattoos on their arms that represent how many lives they have left.  As long as they have lives, if they die, they simply respawn by falling out of the air and landing where they had previously died.  I also like that all of the people they meet within the Jumanji world are capable of only saying a few select things over and over, since they are technically non-playable characters in a video game, and that's all they're programmed to say.  Again, this is funny, but the movie never truly takes this idea as far as it should or could have, and I felt like more could have been done.

I think what happened here is that the four credited screenwriters had some good ideas, but didn't know how to implement them into the narrative, which is fairly routine.  The quest that the heroes are on is to retrieve a mythical jewel that was stolen by a villain named Van Pelt (Bobby Cannavale), which allows him to control the local jungle wildlife to do his bidding, as well as give him command over an army of motorcycle-riding thugs.  They must retrieve the jewel and place it back in its proper resting place to win the game.  As the plot for an adventure, this is about as bare bones as you can get.  It doesn't help that the villain comes across as a total non-entity, with no real scenes where we get to learn his purpose or his plans.  The only thing that stands out about Van Pelt is the odd fact that he has worms, bugs and other creepy crawlies coming out of his mouth and ears for reasons unexplained.  I kind of wished the movie would have had more fun with its evil character, and maybe play off some of the cliches of video game villains.  He could kidnap a damsel, not for any particular reason, but because it's what's expected of him.

I really should stress that this is not a bad movie.  It simply felt to me like a lot more could have been done, and that the satirical elements could have been worked better into the plot.  As it is, it felt like a lot of times that the movie would pause to have some funny dialogue or clever observations, and then it would go right back to being a perfectly standard Hollywood blockbuster that fails to impress.  I also was kind of hoping that the action sequences could act as kind of a commentary on video games, and how insane the action can get at times.  But aside from a scene where Dwayne Johnson takes on a whole army of thugs on the streets of a marketplace, the movie never quite seems to go all out.  There's a scene involving a helicopter that comes close, but never quite clicked with me.  I have often compared some over the top action scenes in movies to video games.  This is one time where I think the approach would have been a benefit, as long as something clever was done with it.

I will say that this Jumanji movie is probably more fun than the tepid 1995 movie, but it just never quite managed to cast a spell on me that allowed me to embrace it.  This is one of those movies where it felt like to me that the pieces were in place for a successful movie, and while the filmmakers do strike a few successful notes, the whole thing just never came together.

4 comments

4 Comments:

  • So far, you called the original film tepid. I love to see that in your Fall and Holiday Movies of 1995 article

    By Blogger Patrick Shields, at 9:00 PM  

  • The 1995 movie just looked like alot of special fx. And I've liked movies that were criticized as such. I just have no nostalgic attachment to the original. To me jumanji was just a amusing fleeting kids book.

    By Blogger Bill Sanderson Jr, at 7:20 AM  

  • Jumanji was a children's book.

    By Blogger Patrick Shields, at 10:53 AM  

  • Oh yes it was. It's as old as me.

    By Blogger Bill Sanderson Jr, at 4:25 PM  

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