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

We live in a twilight world.

Tenet (2020)
(SPOILERS) I’ve endured a fair few confusingly-executed action sequences in movies – more than enough, actually – but I don’t think I’ve previously had the odd experience of being on the edge of my seat during one while simultaneously failing to understand its objectives and how those objectives are being attempted. Which happened a few times during Tenet. If I stroll over to the Wiki page and read the plot synopsis, it is fairly explicable (fairly) but as a first dive into this Christopher Nolan film, I frequently found it, if not impenetrable, then most definitely opaque.

She was addicted to Tums for a while.

Marriage Story (2019)
(SPOILERS) I don’t tend to fall heavily for Noah Baumbach fare. He’s undoubtedly a distinctive voice – even if his collaborations with Wes Anderson are the least of that director’s efforts – but his devotion to an exclusive, rarefied New York bubble becomes ever more off-putting with each new project. And ever more identifiable as being a lesser chronicler of the city’s privileged quirks than his now disinherited forbear Woody Allen, who at his peak mastered a balancing act between the insightful, hilarious and self-effacing. Marriage Story finds Baumbach going yet again where Woody went before, this time brushing up against the director’s Ingmar Bergman fixation.

You can’t climb a ladder, no. But you can skip like a goat into a bar.

Juno and the Paycock (1930)
(SPOILERS) Hitchcock’s second sound feature. Such was the lustre of this technological advance that a wordy play was picked. By Sean O’Casey, upon whom Hitchcock based the prophet of doom at the end of The Birds. Juno and the Paycock, set in 1922 during the Irish Civil War, begins as a broad comedy of domestic manners, but by the end has descended into full-blown Greek (or Catholic) tragedy. As such, it’s an uneven but still watchable affair, even if Hitch does nothing to disguise its stage origins.

Anything can happen in Little Storping. Anything at all.

The Avengers 2.22: Murdersville
Brian Clemens' witty take on village life gone bad is one of the highlights of the fifth season. Inspired by Bad Day at Black Rock, one wonders how much Murdersville's premise of unsettling impulses lurking beneath an idyllic surface were set to influence both Straw Dogs and The Wicker Mana few years later (one could also suggest it premeditates the brand of backwoods horrors soon to be found in American cinema from the likes of Wes Craven and Tobe Hooper).

James Bond. You appear with the tedious inevitability of an unloved season.

Moonraker (1979)
Depending upon your disposition, and quite possibly age, Moonraker is either the Bond film that finally jumped the shark or the one that is most gloriously redolent of Roger Moore’s knowing take on the character. Many Bond aficionados will no doubt utter its name with thinly disguised contempt, just as they will extol with gravity how Timothy Dalton represented a masterful return to the core values of the series. If you regard For Your Eyes Only as a refreshing return to basics after the excesses of the previous two entries, and particularly the space opera grandstanding of this one, it’s probably fair to say you don’t much like Roger Moore’s take on Bond.

The protocol actually says that most Tersies will say this has to be a dream.

Jupiter Ascending (2015)
(SPOILERS) The Wachowski siblings’ wildly patchy career continues apace. They bespoiled a great thing with The Matrix sequels (I liked the first, not the second), misfired with Speed Racer (bubble-gum visuals aside, hijinks and comedy ain’t their forte) and recently delivered the Marmite Sense8 for Netflix (I was somewhere in between on it). Their only slam-dunk since The Matrix put them on the movie map is Cloud Atlas, and even that’s a case of rising above its limitations (mostly prosthetic-based). Jupiter Ascending, their latest cinema outing and first stab at space opera, elevates their lesser works by default, however. It manages to be tone deaf in all the areas that count, and sadly fetches up at the bottom of their filmography pile.

This is a case where the roundly damning verdicts have sadly been largely on the ball. What’s most baffling about the picture is that, after a reasonably engaging set-up, it determinedly bores the pants off you. I haven’t enco…

He tasks me. He tasks me, and I shall have him.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
(1982)
(SPOILERS) I don’t love Star Trek, but I do love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. That probably isn’t just me, but a common refrain of many a non-devotee of the series. Although, it used to apply to The Voyage Home (the funny one, with the whales, the Star Trek even the target audience for Three Men and a Baby could enjoy). Unfortunately, its high regard has also become the desperate, self-destructive, song-and-verse, be-all-and-end-all of the overlords of the franchise itself, in whichever iteration, it seems. This is understandable to an extent, as Khan is that rare movie sequel made to transcendent effect on almost every level, and one that stands the test of time every bit as well (better, even) as when it was first unveiled.

My dear, sweet brother Numsie!

The Golden Child (1986)
Post-Beverly Hills Cop, Eddie Murphy could have filmed himself washing the dishes and it would have been a huge hit. Which might not have been a bad idea, since he chose to make this misconceived stinker.

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…

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.