Skip to main content

Yes, cake is my weakness.

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle
(2017)

(SPOILERS) Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is good fun, and sometimes, that’s enough. It doesn’t break any new ground, and the establishing act is considerably better than the rather rote plotting and character development that follows, but Jake Kasdan’s semi-sequel more than justifies the decision to return to the stomping ground of the tepid 1995 original, a movie sold on its pixels, and is comfortably able to coast on the selling point of hormonal teenagers embodying grown adults.


This is by some distance Kasdan’s biggest movie, and he benefits considerably from Gyula Pados’s cinematography. Kasdan isn’t, I’d suggest, a natural with action set pieces, and the best sequences are clearly prevized ones he’d have little control over (a helicopter chase, most notably). I’m guessing Pados was brought aboard because of his work on Predators and the Maze Runners (although not the lusher first movie), and he lends the picture a suitably verdant veneer. Which is fortuitous, as there’s some very variable CGI to counter the positives, and I don’t think their quality was intended as a homage to rickety work in the Joe Johnston original (at points, the virtual body doubles, notably of Karen Gillan, are downright terrible).


The screenplay, from Scott Rosenberg and Jeff Pinkner, and Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers, isn’t all it might have been. Not so much in terms of the “teens overcome their hangups/learn their lessons” theme, which is as predictable as it’s bound to be in a reverently sub-John Hughes fashion – although, the enunciating of various of the lessons learned is absolutely excruciating, and no degree of vague self-consciousness grants them a free pass – but the somewhat uninspired, uninventive nature of the game itself. On that level, and generally, Jon Favreau's sort-of-sequel ("spiritual successor") Zathura: A Space Adventure is more impressive.


There are good gags relating to which, particularly in terms of Welcome to the Jungle slotting in between Avatar on the presumed lofty angle and Ready Player One on the nostalgic lesson-learning other as an irreverent entry in the VR sub-genre; the “three lives” angle sets up several amusingly OTT deaths, including one based on strengths and weaknesses that involves a particularly mirthful encounter with cake.  But the game’s plot is so pedestrian that signposting the “game” narrative interlude video clips only really works just the once, after which we’re needlessly subjected to bug-eyed, bug-commanding Bobby Carnavale being terribly angry, or really rather dull bikers in hot pursuit whenever the pressure needs upping.


Fortunately, though, Kasdan’s movie is more focussed on the leads, enabling some engaging performances, in particular from Jack Black (Professor Sheldon “Shelly” Oberon), just the right side of camp, playing a vacuous, self-involved narcissistic would-be It girl (Madison Iseman’s Bethany). It might be levelled that Bethany learns her lessons a touch too easily – Fridge too – and frivolously, but this is exactly the kind of role in which Black’s penchant for excess proves a good fit.


Gillan (Ruby Roundhouse) is also great, in a part that’s far more of a Hollywood calling card than her deadly, dour Nebula; as nerd Martha (Morgan Turner) she fully grasps the opportunity to klutz out, be it chatting up guys, essaying a “sexy” walk or attempting a first kiss. While Gillan looks the part – I’m quite sure she skipped lunch prior to any long or medium shots –  the action elements (her “half a shirt and short shorts in the jungle” outfit and skills, including dance fighting, are precisely the stuff of inspired hormonal geek game designers) are very much secondary to the success of the performance.


Kevin Hart (Franklin “Mouse” Finbar, special skill is weapons valet) and Dwayne Johnson (Dr Smoler Bravestone) are slightly bringing up the rear. They both provide decent yuks, but Johnson’s Spencer (Alex Wolff) is a more serious-minded character, translating into a less interesting lead, frequently spelled out in a succession of entirely grating clichés (learning to believe in yourself, overcoming your fears, being who you really are, etc.) He’s funnier in Central Intelligencenot a better movie, by any stretch – playing a similarly transformed geek-come-stud. 


Hart falls short when relying on his trademark mugging as Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain), but he’s much better embracing the now-diminutive user and alpha male cut short. There’s also a sense, these characters being audience avatars playing avatars, archetypes embodying archetypes, that the screenplay might have had even more fun with the conceit if it had been that bit cleverer and more self-aware.


The most interesting narrative quirk is the inclusion of a time travel device right at the end, as Alex Vreeke (Mason Guccione in the prologue,  Nick Jonas in the game) escapes Jumanji after twenty years – he was hiding out in the same spot as Robin Williams’ character – but ends up back in 1996, and very Back to the Future like, our heroes arrive in a different present of which they have no direct experience, in which the rundown neighbourhood house of OId Man Vreeke (Tim Matheson) is fresh and welcoming, and Alex is now played by Colin Hanks (what an appalling let-down for Bethany, who had a thing for his Nick Jonas version). It’s such an established time travel convention now that it probably usually passes without mention, but the nature of this convention, even if the writers haven’t really thought about it, suggests they’re in an entirely divergent, alternate present to the one they left.


It occurred to me that the inevitable Jumanji 2 (3) might bring back the same avatars hosted by an entirely different set of stereotypes, which would work only as far as the performers’ versatility will stretch, but it nevertheless feels like a sound starting point. Really, though, the screenwriters need to have more fun with the gameplay, with subverting and applying the rules and potentially diverse genres. And, if they’re going to preach the message of reality being better than fantasy, they really need it to resonate. Having the game smashed isn’t remotely convincing when we’re half expecting Spencer and Martha (despite the latter’s protestations) to want to return to the game that weekend. Ultimately, for all its forswearing, we aren’t convinced the geeks really want to stay geeks – even very presentable, Hollywood-coded geeks –  just as there’s no doubt the cool kids don’t want to be stuck as their squat, dumpy alternates.



Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Popular posts from this blog

You were this amazing occidental samurai.

Ricochet (1991) (SPOILERS) You have to wonder at Denzel Washington’s agent at this point in the actor’s career. He’d recently won his first Oscar for Glory , yet followed it with less-than-glorious heart-transplant ghost comedy Heart Condition (Bob Hoskins’ racist cop receives Washington’s dead lawyer’s ticker; a recipe for hijinks!) Not long after, he dipped his tentative toe in the action arena with this Joel Silver production; Denzel has made his share of action fare since, of course, most of it serviceable if unremarkable, but none of it comes near to delivering the schlocky excesses of Ricochet , a movie at once ingenious and risible in its plot permutations, performances and production profligacy.

No one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself.

The Matrix  (1999) (SPOILERS) Twenty years on, and the articles are on the defining nature of The Matrix are piling up, most of them touching on how its world has become a reality, or maybe always was one. At the time, its premise was engaging enough, but it was the sum total of the package that cast a spell – the bullet time, the fashions, the soundtrack, the comic book-as-live-action framing and styling – not to mention it being probably the first movie to embrace and reflect the burgeoning Internet ( Hackers doesn’t really count), and subsequently to really ride the crest of the DVD boom wave. And now? Now it’s still really, really good.

Well, something’s broke on your daddy’s spaceship.

Apollo 13 (1995) (SPOILERS) The NASA propaganda movie to end all NASA propaganda movies. Their original conception of the perilous Apollo 13 mission deserves due credit in itself; what better way to bolster waning interest in slightly naff perambulations around a TV studio than to manufacture a crisis event, one emphasising the absurd fragility of the alleged non-terrestrial excursions and the indomitable force that is “science” in achieving them? Apollo 13 the lunar mission was tailor made for Apollo 13 the movie version – make believe the make-believe – and who could have been better to lead this fantasy ride than Guantanamo Hanks at his all-American popularity peak?

I can’t be the worst. What about that hotdog one?

Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022) (SPOILERS) It would have been a merciful release, had the title card “ The End ”, flashing on screen a little before the ninety-minute mark, not been a false dawn. True, I would still have been unable to swab the bloody dildoes fight from my mind, but at least Everything Everywhere All at Once would have been short. Indeed, by the actual end I was put in mind of a line spoken by co-star James Wong in one of his most indelible roles: “ Now this really pisses me off to no end ”. Or to put it another way, Everything Everywhere All at Once rubbed me up the wrong which way quite a lot of most of the time.

We’ve got the best ball and chain in the world. Your ass.

Wedlock (1991) (SPOILERS) The futuristic prison movie seemed possessed of a particular cachet around this time, quite possibly sparked by the grisly possibilities of hi-tech disincentives to escape. On that front, HBO TV movie Wedlock more than delivers its FX money shot. Elsewhere, it’s less sure of itself, rather fumbling when it exchanges prison tropes for fugitives-on-the-run ones.

Drank the red. Good for you.

Morbius (2022) (SPOILERS) Generic isn’t necessarily a slur. Not if, by implication, it’s suggestive of the kind of movie made twenty years ago, when the alternative is the kind of super-woke content Disney currently prioritises. Unfortunately, after a reasonable first hour, Morbius descends so resignedly into such unmoderated formula that you’re left with a too-clear image of Sony’s Spider-Verse when it lacks a larger-than-life performer (Tom Hardy, for example) at the centre of any given vehicle.

He’ll regret it to his dying day, if ever he lives that long.

The Quiet Man (1952) (SPOILERS) The John Wayne & John Ford film for those who don’t like John Wayne & John Ford films? The Quiet Man takes its cues from Ford’s earlier How Green Was My Valley in terms of, well less Anglophile and Hibernophile and Cambrophile nostalgia respectively for past times, climes and heritage, as Wayne’s pugilist returns to his family seat and stirs up a hot bed of emotions, not least with Maureen O’Hara’s red-headed hothead. The result is a very likeable movie, for all its inculcated Oirishness and studied eccentricity.

So, you’re telling me that NASA is going to kill the President of the United States with an earthquake?

Conspiracy Theory (1997) (SPOILERS) Mel Gibson’s official rehabilitation occurred with the announcement of 2016’s Oscar nominations, when Hacksaw Ridge garnered six nods, including Mel as director. Obviously, many refuse to be persuaded that there’s any legitimate atonement for the things someone says. They probably weren’t even convinced by Mel’s appearance in Daddy’s Home 2 , an act of abject obeisance if ever there was one. In other circles, though, Gibbo, or Mad Mel, is venerated as a saviour unsullied by the depraved Hollywood machine, one of the brave few who would not allow them to take his freedom. Or at least, his values. Of course, that’s frequently based on alleged comments he made, ones it’s highly likely he didn’t. But doesn’t that rather appeal to the premise of his 23-year-old star vehicle Conspiracy Theory , in which “ A good conspiracy theory is an unproveable one ”?

He doesn’t want to lead you. He just wants you to follow.

Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore (2022) (SPOILERS) The general failing of the prequel concept is a fairly self-evident one; it’s spurred by the desire to cash in, rather than to tell a story. This is why so few prequels, in any form, are worth the viewer/reader/listener’s time, in and of themselves. At best, they tend to be something of a well-rehearsed fait accompli. In the movie medium, even when there is material that withstands closer inspection (the Star Wars prequels; The Hobbit , if you like), the execution ends up botched. With Fantastic Beasts , there was never a whiff of such lofty purpose, and each subsequent sequel to the first prequel has succeeded only in drawing attention to its prosaic function: keeping franchise flag flying, even at half-mast. Hence Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore , belatedly arriving after twice the envisaged gap between instalments and course-correcting none of the problems present in The Crimes of Grindelwald .

Twenty dwarves took turns doing handstands on the carpet.

Bugsy (1991) (SPOILERS) Bugsy is very much a Warren Beatty vanity project (aren’t they all, even the ones that don’t seem that way on the surface?), to the extent of his playing a title character a decade and a half younger than him. As such, it makes sense that producer Warren’s choice of director wouldn’t be inclined to overshadow star Warren, but the effect is to end up with a movie that, for all its considerable merits (including a script from James Toback chock full of incident), never really feels quite focussed, that it’s destined to lead anywhere, even if we know where it’s going.