Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle

2017-12-29 06:05
 

What it's about:

When four teenagers in detention are sucked into the world of ‘Jumanji,’ they discover an old video game console with a game they’ve never heard of. They’re immediately thrust into the game’s jungle setting—in the bodies of their own avatars. What they discover is that you don’t just play ‘Jumanji’—‘Jumanji’ plays you. They’ll have to go on the most dangerous adventure of their lives, or they’ll be stuck in the game forever.

What we thought:

I enjoyed the original Jumanji film when it came out in the mid 1990s but I would be lying if I said it ever stayed with me in the way that many of my favourite movies from my youth did. It was no Star Wars, Back to the Future or Jurassic Park, that's for sure. I find it hard to believe, however, that even the film's biggest fans, those to whom it is their Empire Strikes Back, were clamouring for a sequel. Certainly not twenty-two-years later, without any of the original cast and most especially not without the late and so very great, Robin Williams.

Here we are, though: In typical Hollywood fashion, no beloved slice of a generation's childhood is safe and we have this semi-sequel/ reboot/ remake that seems, at the outset, to bank purely on Dwayne Johnson's apparently endless reservoir of charm and charisma to soften the blow of what should be an utterly pointless and hopelessly cynical endeavour. Maybe it's just my couldn't-be-any-lower expectations talking here but I'll be damned if they didn't, to a certain degree at least, pull it off. Most surprisingly, while the sheer awesomeness of The Rock does contribute plenty to the film's modest but real success, he's far from the only good thing about it. 

The “they” in question are director Jake Kasdan and screenwriters Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers, Scott Rosenberg and Jeff Pinkner who, between them, have worked on some pretty great TV and films over the past couple of decades, including Freaks and Geeks, High Fidelity and Community. They've done some less than great stuff too, to be sure, but the powers-that-be in Hollywood at least gave the film a fighting chance by giving it to a group of creators who have more than proven their mettle in the past. 

Not that even this level of creative fire power behind the scenes necessarily meant that the film wouldn't be ruined by overbearing studio heads or even by the simple fact that it is a sequel to a film that really didn't need one – but then it probably didn't need all those video game, TV and movie spin-offs either (Zathura was basically Jumanji in space, let's not forget) and none of those did much harm to it. And yet, apparently there really is something about Chris Van Allsburg's original novel that lends itself to adaptation as this latest iteration is both far fresher and far better than it really has any right to be.

This doesn't mean Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle doesn't have its flaws or that it is anywhere near as good as the best of its creators' best work but it is breezily likeable, solidly enjoyable in an old-fashioned adventure film kind of way and, yes, genuinely funny. 

There may be none of the visual invention or creative ingenuity of other video-game inflected films like Tron or Scott Pilgrim vs the World but you have to give Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle credit for transcending the worst video-game-movie missteps by keeping the adventure-serial narrative fairly tightly controlled, while still working in classic video game conventions like multiple lives, levelling-up and archetypal characters with very specific strengths and weaknesses. Frankly, however much I adore Alicia Vikander, there really is no need for another Lara Croft movie after this.

This is all the more true as this film actually has its own Lara-Craft-type in the form of Karen Gillen, who not only looks great in that totally impractical short-shorts and mid-riff-bearing TV shirt combo (a typical bit of video gaming sexism that is poked fun at here) but also boasts a really killer mix of solid comedic timing and a character that is exactly the result of putting an insecure teenage outsider into the body of an ass-kicking video game heroine. She's really terrific here and she clearly throws all of her passion for the project – she lists the original Jumanji in her top-3 films ever, along with, sure enough, 2001: A Space Odyssey and a Clockwork Orange, apparently - into her already nicely written role. She's been good in everything I've seen her in but this may well turn out to be a calling-card movie for her.

Really, though, the entire cast is great. We have Jack Black in a return to comedic form playing a “Queen Bee” high school girl; Dwayne Johnson as a nerdy Jewish kid who acts exactly as a nerdy Jewish kid would if they suddenly found themselves with the body of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Kevin Hart as, well Kevin Hart – he's the only one of the actors who doesn't really act like his teenage “real-world” counterpart but teaming him up with Dawyne Johnson once again proves to be the key to turning a comedic actor who is often more annoying than funny into the real comedic powerhouse that he really should be. Oh, there's also one of the Jonas brothers and he's likeable enough, if a bit nondescript and Bobby Cannavale as the film's one-note but enjoyably slimy baddie.

So, yes, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is no classic and you will probably barely think about it at all after seeing it but it is so much better than it has any right to be that it’s easy to excuse its undeniable flimsiness or ultimately fairly small weaknesses. It's a really pleasant surprise and a great pick for this festive season at the cinema – after you've seen the Last Jedi at least a couple of times, anyway.

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