JUMANJI; WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE - Review - We Are Movie Geeks



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With the new year less than a couple of weeks away, Hollywood has made another flick that may be labeled the dreaded (to some film fans) “R” word. Not the MPAA rating, but rather a “reboot”, or has the marketers love to say a “re-imagining” (perhaps it’s from the same “brain trust” that gave us prequel). The story’s source is a beloved 21 year-old kids fantasy/action flick that was an adaptation of a beloved 13 year-old (now 32) children’s book from Chris Van Allsburg (he also gave us “The Polar Express”, which was also made into a big movie). It soon spawned an animated Saturday morning series, but no real sequel (Allsburg’s “Zathura”explores similar themes and was brought to the big screen by Jon Favreau twelve years ago). And despite what the studio says, there are sequel elements in this new take. That 95 version concerned a long-missing man returning to the real world after being trapped in a board game (and the zany jungle creatures who are also released and run amok through a small town). But, as one of this film’s characters says early on, “Who plays board games?”. Hence the major (here’s another “R” word) “re-tooling” that’s at the heart of JUMANJI: WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE.

That bit of dialogue occurs in the film’s flashback prologue set all the way back in 1996 (ah nostalgia!) as we see that original board game’s fate. Its unlucky new owner takes it back to his house where it somehow morphs into a gaming cartridge (of the old Nintendo or Atari variety). Of course he’s gotta’ pop it into his system….and we’re in present day. Frail, nerdy Spencer (Alex Wolff) gets a call from former BFF now football hotshot “Fridge” (Ser’Darius Blain) to meet him before the start of the high school day in front of the local rundown “spooky house” (could that be the same…). Spencer gives Fridge the history term paper that was just printed up (a bit more than the tutoring Fridge told his mom about). Needless to say, the two guys get busted and the principal sentences them to detention that day (Fridge is out of the next big game too). That same day the vain arrogant Bethany (Madison Iseman) earns detention for in class cell phone use, as does the introvert Martha (Morgan Turner) for refusing to participate in gym class. Ah, but the punishment is not after school study hall. The principal tasks them with clearing out an old storage room (taking staples out of old magazines for recycling…okay). Amazingly amongst the clutter is that old home gaming system with the Jumanji cartridge. And there’s an old A/V monitor …so let’s slack off and play this old school game. At the game’s start they each choose an avatar character before things get freaky. One by one they are transported out of the room and into the game’s setting, the lush mythical jungle land of Jumanji. And they become the game’s characters. Spence is the dashing, muscular Dr. Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson). Tall, buff Fridge is now Spence’s “weapons valet” and diminutive “side-kick” “Moose” (or is it “Mouse”) Finbar (Kevin Hart). The shy Martha is now the gorgeous ginger butt-kicker Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan). And, most startling, blonde bimbo Bethany is now a chunky middle-aged, bespectacled “dude”, Professor Shelly Oberon (Jack Black).


But why are they here? Another game character, Nigel (Rhys Darby), arrives with transport and back story. A power mad explorer named Van Pelt (Bobby Cannavale) has stolen the glowing green gem that was the eye of the jaguar god statue that looms over the land. It possessed him, giving Van Pelt control over all the jungle’s animals (and an endless supply of chopper-riding thugs, it would seem). Of course this puts the land’s eco-system in jeopardy (constant storms and quakes). Luckily Nigel grabbed the gem and barely escaped. He then hands over the gem and the map showing the location of the big statue. The team must return the “eye” in order to restore balance to the land. As they embark on their quest, the foursome realize that the black stripes on their arms indicate “game life” and wonder whether they will die in the real world if all their game lives are used up. Keeping a few steps ahead of Van Pelt’s goons, they enlist the aid of the mysterious Alex (Nick Jonas), who has first-hand knowledge of the game’s secrets. But is his help enough to enable the quintet to finish the game, restore Jumanji, and return to their former lives?



The biggest box office draw this time around is the artist formerly known as “The Rock’. Despite looking like he’s in training for the rumored Doc Savage feature film (just needed the shirt in tatters and a gold skull-cap), Johnson has a bit of fun mocking his action star persona by conveying his inner nerd (the real Spencer), there’s his unabashed joy with his physical prowess (actually exclaiming comic book sound effects “pow”, “bam” as he takes out the baddies) and painful teenage awkwardness as he “goes in” for his first kiss (really bad aim). Hart is his typical manic “motor-mouth” , but more frustrated because of the “downgrade” from tough “jock” Fridge. Gillan, perhaps best known in the movies as the seething, wicked Nebula in the GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY flicks, demonstrates that she can land a joke as well as a bone-cracking punch. Like Johnson, she’s astounded by her physicality and her appearance, but needs help exploiting it (she’s got to distract some thugs). Black is an unlikely teacher, but then he really seems to be having a blast as the teen queen “B” trapped in an “old” guy’s body. In what could’ve been just a “one joke” role, Black is able to make us believe the ridiculous premise and never resorts to cheap gags. This is especially true as he shares the secrets of entrancing the boys. She sets her sights on the amiable Jonas, who expertly exploits his pop star charisma. Darby is very funny as an Aussie cliché who ‘s there to jump-start the plot and later, wraps it all up. Cannavale has little to do other than grimace, scream at his toadies, and allow lotsa’ creepy crawlers slither in and out of his face. As for the “real” kids, Wolff really nails the sweaty desperation of adolescence while Iseman is exasperating as the selfie-obssessed circa 2017 “valley girl”.


Director Jake Kasdan does his best to keep things moving, but despite the talented cast the film just slogs along. At just under two hours it tends to become repetitious, lurching from one big trap or altercation to the next. And with the promise of more than one “life”, there’s not a lot at stake till that last black arm stripe is showing. Plus, as with its ’95 original, the CGI animals vary in realistic movement. Part of the charm of that previous flick was the cartoonish storybook look of the monkeys and rhinos, but often in this film, they seem to have bounced right out a modern computer game, having little “weight” as they glide toward the heroes. Taking them out of the mix would have helped cut 20 minutes and tightened the pace. that and the many “life lessons” that the characters must ponder and pontificate over (“Who do you want to be?”, “You’ve only got one life” and other inspirational homilies). For this they needed four writers? For really compelling characters and stories, that space epic is still playing down the multiplex hallway. And it’ll still be there long after JUMANJI: WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE is regulated to the underwhelming reboot bin. As they say in the video arcade,”Game over”.

2.5 Out of 5


Jim Batts was a contestant on the movie edition of TV's "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" in 2009 and has been a member of the St. Louis Film Critics organization since 2013.


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