Cinema Dispatch: Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle

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Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle and all the images you see in this review are owned by Sony Pictures Entertainment

Directed by Jake Kasdan

So I guess the nineties nostalgia train is just gonna keep on rolling until it either runs out of steam or derails horribly (the latter probably if someone gets the idea to do a Cartoon Network Cinematic Universe), and this latest stop on that journey might be the most baffling yet.  Sure the original film is a straight up classic (don’t yell at me!  It is!), but did it really have the kind of cultural impact to make what I GUESS is supposed to be a sequel some twenty years later?  Maybe that’s why they got one of the most reliably bankable stars right now to take the lead, which to be fair is EXACTLY what they did in the original.  Either way, does this manage to live up to the fantastic film that preceded it, or is this yet another soulless cash grab desperately pandering to millennial nostalgia for a quick buck?  Let’s find out!!

The movie follows the story of a group of kids stuck in detention for various reasons when they JUST SO HAPPEN upon a video game console that looks kind of like a TurboGrafx-16.  Inside there is only a single cart called Jumanji which they decide to play because apparently detention in this school goes unsupervised; especially when its being served out in a storage room full of all sorts of precariously stacked sports equipment and I guess haunted video game consoles.  The four kids, Spencer, Bethany, Fridge, and Martha (Alex Wolff, Madison Iseman, Ser’Darius Blain, and Morgan Turner) get sucked into the video game and turn into three character actors and a leading man in the process and now have to find a way to beat the game in order to get back to the real world.  Dr. Smolder Bravestone is Spencer’s character (Dwayne Johnson) takes point due to his video game knowledge and brand new smoking bod, Franklin Finbar is Fridge’s character (Kevin Hart) is the animal expert with an infinitely deep backpack, Ruby Roundhouse is Martha’s character (Karen Gillan) as a Playstation 1 era female protagonist, and Professor Sheldon Oberon is Bethany’s character (Jack Black) who knows how to… read maps I guess?  Anyway, the four of them have to work together in order to complete their mission of getting some sort of jewel back to its sacred resting place before the EVIL Van Pelt (Bobby Cannavale) shoots them all in the head and takes the jewel for himself.  Will these four brave (or at least sort of brave) heroes manage to put aside their differences and work together to escape this CryEngine tech demo?  What secrets are hiding in this jungle, and will those secrets contain references to the previous film?

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I don’t know about everyone else, but I had a GREAT time in this!  It’s perfectly fine as what it is; a campy action blockbuster aimed at families held up by some spot on B-Movie level performances from its more than capable cast.  Sure it’s probably not in the BEST position to be sandwiched between Star Wars and a bunch of Oscar worthy films, but it’s just fine and a heck of a lot fun!  Where it truly falters though is the fact that it is technically a Jumanji movie, and comparing it to that film is like comparing Dr Strangelove to Hot Shots Part Deux; both great in their own way, but one is the greatest film ever made and the other is mostly remembered as the high point in Charlie Sheen’s career.  Is it fair to compare a movie like the original Jumanji, which I think is a FANTASTIC film, with what is basically in name only “sequel” made over twenty years later?  Maybe in so far as explaining why this movie is wildly disposable and not something really worth remembering outside of basic trivia once Dwayne The Rock Johnson becomes president, but judging it on its own merits and giving it the leeway of NOT thinking of it in conjunction with the original film, it’s a perfectly serviceable as a dumb action flick and is WAY better than a lot of other movies this year that have carried that moniker.

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“Running, Running, Running, RUNNING!!”

What works about this movie is easy to see right on its surface.  It’s beautifully shot with some rather impressive vistas, the effects look really good and complement the action scenes well, and while ALL the jokes don’t hit, the cast is game enough to work with what their given and make the most of it.  It’s no surprise that Dwayne Charming Pants Johnson has charisma to spare but everyone else has their moments to shine with Kevin Hart bringing a surprising range of emotions to the role, Jack Black hamming it up with confidence and pizazz as a teenage girl stuck in a middle aged man’s body, and even Karen Gillian who sadly has the least to do managing to have her moments to shine.  Then again, a lot of her role is undercut by the fact that the film is “playing up” the SEXY VIDEO GAME FEMALE archetype (her outfit and character traits are very pre-2013 Lara Croft) which basically means they are still using the exact same tropes but calling attention to it every once in a while in an attempt to have its cake and eat it.  It’s disappointing that her character never really has much agency about her objectification which she is clearly uncomfortable about (she couldn’t find a single pair of pants anywhere?), but at least Karen Gillan is talented enough to not feel wasted in a role that isn’t doing her a lot of favors.

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“Why do YOU get all the sexy clothing?”     “Well obviously because I wear it better!”     “Sigh…”     “Don’t be jealous of my bowtie!”

The story itself… well we’ll get into comparisons with the original film soon enough, but needless to say that it’s about as shallow as everything else in this movie which is fine for its goofy action scenes and silly jokes, but it’s too straightforward and cliché of a story for its own good even if its intentionally trying to ape the aesthetic and tone of an over the top video game.  Even then though, anyone who has a passing knowledge of video games (particularly modern ones) are gonna spot some glaring shortcomings here like the fact that they have a lives system yet aren’t really committing to a retro style and that this open jungle environment (very reminiscent of Ubisoft games) is about as linear as a David Cage joint.  All the video game bells and whistles are honestly not even all that relevant to the proceedings as it’s not all that different in tone and substance from OTHER over the top action films like say The Rundown, and the gimmick ends up feeling like a detriment to what story COULD have been there if we weren’t spending all our time in an environment that we are clearly reminded is artificial.  Because this is all taking place WITHIN the world of Jumanji instead the world of Jumanji breaking into ours, there’s absolutely no stakes involved with the world itself and PARTICULARLY with its abysmally weak set of villains who add noting to the proceedings that the harsh environment doesn’t already.  Sure it means that the action set pieces are appropriately bananas and a whole lot of fun to watch, but what that really leaves us with in terms of plot is the individual character arcs of our main characters and honestly they just aren’t all that interesting, nor are the lessons they’re supposed to learn on this adventure.  Granted, our four leads do a really great job embodying the personalities of their real life selves inside completely foreign bodies (The Rock is surprisingly good at downplaying his own confidence and intimidating presence), but beyond that there’s not much to chew on as they all more or less come to the same conclusion that ALL teenagers do in movies like these; that it’s time to grow up and be better people.  Excuse me for not getting invested with The Nerd gaining confidence, the Jock taking his school work seriously, and the other completely predicable character turns, but considering how much fun the original had with its eclectic set of characters, I feel like it’s a big letdown that this movie barely even tried to give us anything original with its cast.

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This Breakfast Club sequel is quite underwhelming.

I’m honestly not sure how fondly the original film is remembered, but rewatching it for the purposes of this review, it’s actually kind of brilliant and is surprisingly dark in ways that modern kids films usually aren’t.  Really, aside from the effects not holding up AT ALL (the new film doesn’t have THAT much of a bigger budget yet looks SO much better), it manages to outclass this new film in almost every way that matters.  As much as I would watch Dwayne Johnson in anything he does, even if it’s just a video of him eating a sandwich, his character simply doesn’t have the depth and complexity that Robin Williams did in the original; nor does Nick Jonas who theoretically has the same type of role that Robin Williams had even if he’s not the star of the film.  This film lacks anything close to bite which is fine if ALL you want to be is a fun mindless blockbuster (which it is), but because its ambitions are purely technical and on a surface level, it simply can’t hold a candle to a film that took chances, knew when to slow down to build drama, and even managed to get REALLY weird at points.  There’s nothing as brilliant in this film as having Jonathan Hyde play both Alan Parrish’s dad and the man who hunts him as part of the game, and the piss poor facsimile of his character played with barely any effort by Bobby Cannavale is one of the biggest letdowns of this film.  They try to go with a similar ending as the first film (which when you REALLY think about it was SUPER weird), yet like everything else it never goes past a surface level interpretation and just ends up falling flat in a story that didn’t really do anything to deserve that ending.  To me, the original Jumanji is nearly a masterpiece and is one of the better adventure films of its era and I can go on and on about how much the new film dropped the ball when you stack the two side by side, but even if it can’t hold a candle to the film from which it’s trying to sell itself off of, I can’t really get mad at it considering just how different of a movie it is and how decent it is at that.  Do I wish that this film set its sights MUCH higher, especially given how great of a cast it had to work with?  Absolutely, but I’m not gonna sit here getting TOO mad because this film isn’t decided to focus on being dumb and flashy instead of trying to be on par with film it honestly had little hope of living up to.

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“Wow!  I don’t even have to have dead parents!  SWEET!”

It’s by no means a great film and it’ll be forgotten rather quickly, but as an end of the year distraction it does its job better than a lot of films that try to pull off the same tone.  In fact, it SHOULD have gotten released during the summer where it would have been a genuine highlight against films that are at best a FRACTION as good as what they were able to pull off here!  Nothing will replace the original film as this movie APTLY proves, which is a shame considering what the filmmakers had to work with (and I’d REALLY like to see Dwayne Johnson try something a little less over the top for once), but on its own rather skewed merits it manages to succeed, so… I guess check it out if you’ve already seen the other films that are coming out right now (almost all of which are better than this one) or you’re looking for something fun for the family.  After seeing Star Wars of course.

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