Thursday, January 4, 2018

We've Got Fun And Games

Year: 2017
Director: Jake Kasdan
Cast: Dwayne Johnson, Karen Gillan, Kevin Hart 
Run Time:1 hour 59 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13

Franchise filmmaking is full of some spectacularly bad ideas. But even in a year that featured a live action remake of Beauty and the Beast in which neither lead could really sing and Flatliners - a remake of a boring horror film that didn't do particularly great the first time around - the very worst idea they pulled out of that infinitely deep Mary Poppins bag of branding was Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle.

Consider that awful, awful subtitle. Consider the continuation of the insipid 90's nostalgia pandering that caused Fuller House and Will and Grace to be borne into the world unbidden. Consider the fact that the plot hinges around a video game in a flailing move to update the material for the kids of today. Consider the fact that the spirit of the original was the novelty of seeing wild animals prowl through the streets of modern suburbia and that this film completely ignores that and places them in their natural jungle setting for no good reason. 

I was ready to eviscerate this movie. And yet, against all odds, it's kind of... dare I say... good.

Isn't that wild?

The plot of Jumanji is pretty simple. A diverse quartet of kids are stuck in detention cleaning out an old basement, where they discover a dusty cartridge game titled Jumanji. They plug it in, select their characters, and suddenly the game sucks them into a real life, real dangerous jungle world, placing them in the bodies of their much-more-famous video game avatars. In order to escape, they must win the game. They have three lives, and to lose them all means they'll die in the real world. The object of the game is to return a stolen magical jewel to the eye of a giant jaguar statue, thwarting wicked villain Van Pelt (Bobby Cannavale) who used the gem's magic to turn the animals of the once-peaceful jungle into vicious, man-eating monsters.

The four obviously learn about the power of teamwork or friendship or whatever, but the film is mostly a loose series of comic adventure vignettes, propelled by something I haven't seen in a family movie in what feels like ages: actual character-based comedy. More on that miracle in a minute, but I suppose I should introduce you to the characters in brief.

First we have Spencer (Alex Wolff), a dweeby, shy kid who is afraid of everything thanks to his overprotective mother, who suddenly finds himself in the body of Dr. Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson), a dashing swashbuckler. Then there's Fridge (Ser'Darius Blain), a popular football player who has conscripted once-friend Spencer to do his homework for him, who winds up in the diminutive form of zoologist/weapons valet Mouse Finbar (Kevin Hart) - there is a joke about them initially reading his nickname as "Moose" that they don't even attempt to land. They are joined by nerdy girl and potential Spencer love interest Martha (Morgan Turner), now inhabiting the body of seductive, bad-ass Killer of Men Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan), as well as popular, bubble-headed Instagram princess Bethany (Madison Iseman), now trapped in the middle-aged, portly form of cartographer Professor Shelly Oberon (Jack Black).

One of these things is less famous than the other.

OK, back to my point. The character comedy here is remarkable just for existing, but it's also a pretty delicate, layered approach that boggles the mind. The no fewer than four people who contributed to the script must have had a hell of a mind meld going on, because this screenplay is tight

To start off, the plot makes a big deal out of the strengths and weaknesses of each character in the game, as literally detailed by the game (Ruby Roundhouse's weakness is "venom", whereas Mouse Finbar's is "cake," and wouldn't you know it but those jokes around Kevin Hart still just refuse to work). But in addition to that, it weaves in the strengths and weaknesses of the teens as seen pre-transformation, and their personality traits interlock and dovetail from those of their avatars in a way that's a pure delight to watch.

These are unusually well-crafted characters, but they'd be nothing without the performers attached to each (well, most) of them. Dwayne Johnson and Karen Gillan seem like they could have been mo-capped by Alex Wolff and Morgan Turner for how much they physically inhabit the posture and movements of dweeby teens who don't know what to do with their bodies. It's an astoundingly anti-movie star set of performances that showcase their pure, unadulterated commitment to the roles. And then there's Jack Black, who steals the show so effortlessly that Danny Ocean is putting him on his Rolodex. I so wasn't ready to like Jack Black again, but he throws himself completely into playing the role of a teenage girl, and while the trailers made it seem like it would just be a grotesque caricature, he actually delivers a nonstop barrage of genuinely funny lines that push the envelope of gender representation in blockbuster filmmaking and dear God, I can't believe I'm writing a sentence like this in a review of Jumanji, for crying out loud.

I know, I'm just as surprised as you.

The only liability, as you may have noticed from my oh-so subtle hinting, is Kevin Hart. Not only is he given the film's worst material to trudge through, he in no way attempts anything other than his "shriek every line" schtick. He never manages to channel his teenage counterpart in any meaningful way, to the point that when you see Fridge again you have completely forgotten who he is, whereas you still feel like you've spent time with all the other characters even though they've been offscreen for over an hour. I'm not particularly a fan of Hart in anything, but never has he been so incompatible with an ensemble.

Luckily Mouse is used sparingly, so he doesn't drag the movie down too much. He's just a reminder that, for as much as Jumanji is surprisingly fun and engaging, it's still a generic family adventure movie. Maybe it's a tad edgier in the PG-13 department than you might expect, but it's no more emotionally complex or stylistically daring than, say, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales.

However, that doesn't stop it from being lighthearted popcorn movie fun. It's a shame that the movie's low stakes prevent Bobby Cannavale from really getting to dig his teeth into his villainous character (which he was clearly relishing), but other than that it's a rollicking, fizzy thrill ride from start to finish. I take back all my grumblings from every time this trailer came on in December.

TL;DR: Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is far better than it has any right to be, with a solid ensemble bringing a set of unique characters to life.
Rating: 7/10
Word Count: 1165

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