Thursday, August 30, 2018

Film Review: Jumanji - Welcome to the Jungle

Sexuality/Nudity Acceptable
Violence Acceptable
Vulgarity Acceptable
Anti-Catholic Philosophy Acceptable

I've read a number of critics who complain about the glut of mediocre action/adventure movies that have been filling our theaters.  If you want to save your hard earned dollars for only great movies, then Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is not for you.  But if you get your money's worth from a fun, distracted two hours then you will get your money's worth.

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle takes place in the same universe as the first film, only this time the magical board game has morphed into a video game.  The other main difference is the plot inversion: instead of the board game invading our real world, four people from the real world enter into the video game world.

The geeky Spencer (Alex Wolff) changes into the colosallal Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson), the popular jock Fridge (Ser'Darius Blain) is transformed into the tiny Franklin "Mouse" Finbar (Kevin Hart), brainy rebel Martha (Morgan Turner) becomes the athletic and attractive Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillen), and instagram girl Bethany (Madison Iseman) gender bends into the rotund Sheldon "Shelly" Oberon (Jack Black).  Once in the game they have to work together with their very specific set of skills to win and to survive the machinations of the evil Van Pelt (Bobby Cannavale).

The film was more entertaining than I expected.  Throughout the film there were several plays on standard video game tropes from the three lives for each player, co-op balance of skills, character regeneration and the like.  Rather than being simple meta jokes, the filmmakers are able to use them to further the plot and create some nice visual set pieces.

Director Jake Kasdan does a fantastic job of making the movie incredibly watchable.  He intermixes the real with the artificial environments in a way that is not jarring.  Because they are in a video game, the digital animation does not feel off-putting.  The entire movie is lush and bright.

Another thing that makes this movie better than average is that they did not make their leads simple caricatures.  The four leads fit into the typical high school archetypes.  But instead of leaving them flat, we get to see them in more than two dimensions.  I particularly liked a moment between Martha and Bethany where they explored the barrier between them.  Martha always judged and looked down on Bethany's popular girl because Martha always thought Bethany was doing the same.  It was an interesting moment where Bethany could confess her admiration for Martha and Martha could embrace more of her femininity.  Surprisingly, none of these character epiphanies felt forced or artificial.

The chemistry with the actors was great.  Johnson and Hart feel like they have a comedy short hand.  Gillen and Black synced with them completely.  The movie is aware enough to use Johnson's charisma and make fun of it at the same time while getting maximum laughs from Hart's humiliation.  Gillen showed some real comedic chops, especially when her character tries hard to be sexy and does not know how.  But the funniest one is Black who captures the spirit of being a sixteen-year-old girl in the modern world.  His performance was oddly honest in its portrayal.  And I was impressed that while some of the gender-switch comedy was a bit naughty, it was never vulgar.  There is something almost innocent when Black shouts in surprise about an unfamiliar biological reaction "These things are CRAZY!"  I was actually pleasantly relieved that this gender-swap did not veer into some kind of political sucker punch.

Not all of the performances are great.  Nick Jonas plays Alex, a boy stuck in the game for years.  He isn't distractingly terrible, but he nowhere near the same level as the four leads.  Cannavale does his best with his character, but the writers dropped the ball on making a compelling villain.

Ultimately, the movie is a coming of age story where the leads are taken out of their comfort zones and get to see themselves and the world in a completely new way.  It embraces the idea of getting outside of your own ego to see others as they really are.  And in a small way, there are several moments where characters have to heroically give a "life" in order to help others in an heroic way.

While all of this is good, it isn't very deep.  Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle does not soar to new heights or sound great depths.  But it is a fun adventure that will make you smile.  And that is no bad thing.

image by Yasir72.multan

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