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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.



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