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.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

Something something trident.

Aquaman (2018)
(SPOILERS) If Aquaman has a problem – although it actually has two – it’s the problem of the bloated blockbuster. There's just too much of it. And the more-more-more element eventual becomes wearing, even when most of that more-more-more is, on a scene-by-scene basis, terrifically executed. If there's one thing this movie proves above all else, it's that you can let director James Wan loose in any given sandpit and he’ll make an above-and-beyond castle out of it. Aquaman isn't a classic, but it isn’t for want of his trying.

I don’t think you will see President Pierce again.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)
(SPOILERS) The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and other tall tales of the American frontier is the title of "the book" from which the Coen brothers' latest derives, and so announces itself as fiction up front as heavily as Fargo purported to be based on a true story. In the world of the portmanteau western – has there even been one before? – theme and content aren't really all that distinct from the more familiar horror collection, and as such, these six tales rely on sudden twists or reveals, most of them revolving around death. And inevitably with the anthology, some tall tales are stronger than other tall tales, the former dutifully taking up the slack.

You look like an angry lizard!

Bohemian Rhapsody (2018)
(SPOILERS) I can quite see a Queen fan begrudging this latest musical biopic for failing to adhere to the facts of their illustrious career – but then, what biopic does steer a straight and true course? – making it ironic that they're the main fuel for Bohemian Rhapsody's box office success. Most other criticisms – and they're legitimate, on the whole – fall away in the face of a hugely charismatic star turn from Rami Malek as the band's frontman. He's the difference between a standard-issue, episodic, join-the-dots narrative and one that occasionally touches greatness, and most importantly, carries emotional heft.

Mountains are old, but they're still green.

Roma (2018)
(SPOILERS) Roma is a critics' darling and a shoe-in for Best Foreign Film Oscar, with the potential to take the big prize to boot, but it left me profoundly indifferent, its elusive majesty remaining determinedly out of reach. Perhaps that's down to generally spurning autobiographical nostalgia fests – complete with 65mm widescreen black and white, so it's quite clear to viewers that the director’s childhood reverie equates to the classics of old – or maybe the elliptical characterisation just didn't grab me, but Alfonso Cuarón's latest amounts to little more than a sliver of substance beneath all that style.

The wolves are running. Perhaps you would do something to stop their bite?

The Box of Delights (1984)
If you were at a formative age when it was first broadcast, a festive viewing of The Box of Delights may well have become an annual ritual. The BBC adaptation of John Masefield’s 1935 novel is perhaps the ultimate cosy yuletide treat. On a TV screen, at any rate. To an extent, this is exactly the kind of unashamedly middle class-orientated bread-and-butter period production the corporation now thinks twice about; ever so posh kids having jolly adventures in a nostalgic netherworld of Interwar Britannia. Fortunately, there’s more to it than that. There is something genuinely evocative about Box’s mythic landscape, a place where dream and reality and time and place are unfixed and where Christmas is guaranteed a blanket of thick snow. Key to this is the atmosphere instilled by director Renny Rye. Most BBC fantasy fare doe not age well but The Box of Delights is blessed with a sinister-yet-familiar charm, such that even the creakier production decisions may be vi…

I am so sick of Scotland!

Outlaw/King (2018)
(SPOILERS) Proof that it isn't enough just to want to make a historical epic, you have to have some level of vision for it as well. Say what you like about Mel's Braveheart – and it isn't a very good film – it's got sensibility in spades. He knew what he was setting out to achieve, and the audience duly responded. What does David Mackenzie want from Outlaw/King (it's shown with a forward slash on the titles, so I'm going with it)? Ostensibly, and unsurprisingly, to restore the stature of Robert the Bruce after it was rather tarnished by Braveheart, but he has singularly failed to do so. More than that, it isn’t an "idea", something you can recognise or get behind even if you don’t care about the guy. You’ll never forget Mel's Wallace, for better or worse, but the most singular aspect of Chris Pine's Bruce hasn’t been his rousing speeches or heroic valour. No, it's been his kingly winky.

Never compare me to the mayor in Jaws! Never!

Ghostbusters (2016)
(SPOILERS) Paul Feig is a better director than Ivan Reitman, or at very least he’s savvy enough to gather technicians around him who make his films look good, but that hasn’t helped make his Ghostbusters remake (or reboot) a better movie than the original, and that’s even with the original not even being that great a movie in the first place.

Along which lines, I’d lay no claims to the 1984 movie being some kind of auteurist gem, but it does make some capital from the polarising forces of Aykroyd’s ultra-geekiness on the subject of spooks and Murray’s “I’m just here for the asides” irreverence. In contrast, Feig’s picture is all about treating the subject as he does any other genre, be it cop, or spy, or romcom. There’s no great affection, merely a reliably professional approach, one minded to ensure that a generous quota of gags (on-topic not required) can be pumped out via abundant improv sessions.

So there’s nothing terribly wrong with Ghostbusters, but aside from …

Charles Dickens would have wanted to see her nipples.

Scrooged (1988)
If attaching one’s name to classic properties can be a sign of star power on the wane (both for directors and actors), a proclivity for appearing in Christmas movies most definitely is. Just look at Vince Vaughn’s career. So was Bill Murray running on empty a mere 25 years ago? He’d gone to ground following the rejection of his straight-playing The Razor’s Edge by audiences and critics alike, meaning this was his first comedy lead since Ghostbusters four years earlier. Perhaps he thought he needed a sure-fire hit (with ghosts) to confirm he was still a marquee name. Perhaps his agent persuaded him. Either way, Scrooged was a success. Murray remained a star. But he looked like sell-out, sacrificing his comedy soul for a box office bonanza. He’d seem even more calculating seven months later when tired sequel Ghostbusters II emerged. Scrooged is guilty of exactly the kind of over-sized, commercially cynical production this modern retelling of A Christmas Carol (only partial…