Mark Reviews Movies

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle


2.5 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Jake Kasdan

Cast: Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Karen Gillan, Jack Black, Alex Wolff, Ser'Darius Blain, Madison Iseman, Morgan Turner, Nick Jonas, Rhys Darby, Bobby Cannavale

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for adventure action, suggestive content and some language)

Running Time: 1:59

Release Date: 12/20/17

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Review by Mark Dujsik | December 20, 2017

We last saw the ornate box featuring the mystical board game Jumanji lying on a beach. In the opening scenes of Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, set shortly after the events of the first movie, a man finds that box and gives it to his teenage son. Intrigued, the son opens it and discovers the fancy board, the finely carved game pieces, and the bubble in which messages appear from out of a cloud of mist. The kid has one comment: "Who plays board games anymore?"

This sort-of sequel, arriving more than 20 years after its predecessor, provides a logical rationale for its existence. Kids are finished with board games, both after reaching a certain age and because technology has provided a different type of game. Yes, Jumanji gives itself an upgrade.

The game heard the disaffected teen's rhetorical question and transformed itself into a video game cartridge. There's something amusing here, because kids and teens will probably wonder what a video game cartridge is. If the movie sees board games as quaint and items of nostalgia, it also wants to channel into that quaintness and nostalgia for an older generation—those who saw the original movie as kids and, hence, are old enough to know that video games where once contained, not on discs or in digital downloads, but in plastic boxes.

The plot, then, is essentially the same yet notably different. Some will recall that, in the original movie, being transported inside the world of the Jumanji game was a sort of punishment, brought on by a chance roll of the die, akin to losing a turn or going to jail. In the sequel, it's the entire point of the video game.

After choosing a character, a player is sucked into the world of Jumanji, which has a series of inhabitants (characters who tell the player where they need to go and what they need to do), a map filled with different locales (the game's various levels), and plenty of bad guys and animals with which to fight. There are no points here, because such a thing has become passé in modern video games. The players have to save Jumanji and avoid dying while doing so.

A player takes on the appearance and qualities of one of the game's players, too. We're first introduced to a quartet of teens, and we get some basic characteristics. For most the movie, though, the teens have transformed into the game avatars.

The previously nerdy Spencer (Alex Wolf) is now Dr. Smolder Bravestone, whose many strengths include the ability to say ordinary things with some smolder, and is played by Dwayne Johnson. Star football player "Fridge" (Ser'Darius Blain) is now Franklin "Moose" Finbar, although the whole "Moose" nickname is a misunderstanding. It's actually "Mouse," and the tall, muscular jock is now played by Kevin Hart.

Martha (Morgan Turner) is a shy bookworm in real life, but in the game, she's Ruby Roundhouse, a "killer of men" played by Karen Gillan. Martha is smart enough to recognize that Ruby's outfit—short shorts and a halter top—is inappropriate attire for adventuring in the jungle. The self-obsessed Bethany (Madison Iseman) thinks that the "curvy" cartographer Shelly Oberon sounds appropriate for her. Imagine her surprise when she realizes that Shelly is both a man and looks a lot like Jack Black.

There's plenty of humor in this lengthy introductory sequence, which plays off the various differences in the characters' real selves and their unlikely avatars, as well as the clichés, mechanics, and details of video games. The unimportant characters in the game keep repeating the same dialogue. Everyone has a chart of strengths and weaknesses (Fridge is dumbfounded that his character's weaknesses include cake and, in a paradox that he cannot comprehend, strength). Everyone gets three lives, and losing one sends a player falling from the sky to the place where he or she died. Bad guys inexplicably explode when they're hit.

The game's back story plays out in front of them in a cutscene, which introduces us to the villainous John Hardin Van Pelt (Bobby Cannavale), who has stolen a magical gem that gives him the power to control animals. The goal is retrieve the gem and put in back in the eye of a giant statue of a jaguar.

This is surprisingly clever—in utilizing the features of video games for both humor and some nudging criticism toward the medium—and genuinely funny—in seeing these actors play both to type and completely against it. The actors are clearly having fun with these roles and, especially for Johnson, in finding ways to modulate the screen personas we already know. Gillan is particularly funny in how she turns the generically bad-ass video-game heroine on its head, providing the movie's most pointed criticism toward some of the medium's sexist trends within her performance.

That the movie works to any degree is a genuine shock, but that's not enough to overcome its inevitable slide into routine. Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle doesn't just save its most effective jokes for the beginning. It all but loses the concept of the video-game gimmick once the plot is in motion. The movie becomes an ordinary adventure, and after the promise its setup, ordinary is the last thing we want or need.

Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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