SONY PICTURES ENTERTAINMENT (2017)

 

Director: Jake Kasdan

 

Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Jack Black, Kevin Hart, Karen Gillan, Nick Jonas, Bobby Cannavale, Alex Wolff, Madison Iseman, Ser’Darius Blain, Morgan Turner

Remember that Jumanji sequel you’ve been shouting about for the past two decades?

 

No, neither do I. However, here it is – Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle.

 

The 1995 original is fondly remembered as a fun romp with another enjoyable turn from Robin Williams, however, upon removing the rose-tinted glasses it’s fair to say that Jumanji wasn’t a particularly great movie. In this current age of franchises, expanded universes and redo’s, Jumanji may be a surprise choice for a return to the big screen, but nostalgia can be a powerful thing.

A 1996 prologue lets us know the mischievous board game is still around, and young Alex Vreeke is the latest to disappear whilst attempting to play the game. Fast forward to the present day and four high school students – nerdy wuss Spencer (Wolff), football jock Fridge (Blain), Instagram queen Bethany (Iseman) and awkward bibliophile Martha (Turner) - are in detention and find the new video game iteration of Jumanji – and who wouldn’t play video games rather than clean a school basement? Having selected their in-game avatars, the four are unpleasantly surprised to find they have literally been transported into the game and now appear as their chosen characters. Spencer has become bulky beefcake/explorer Dr. Smolder Bravestone (Johnson), Fridge has lost a foot in height as zoologist Mouse Finbar (Hart), mousy Martha is now scantily-clad, martial artist babe Ruby Roundhouse (Gillan) and Bethany becomes rotund, hairy and very-male archaeologist Professor Shelly Oberon (Black). Whilst in Jumanji, video game rules apply (limited lives, character strengths and weaknesses, in-game help etc.) and in order to return home, they must complete the game by returning the Jaguar’s Eye jewel to its rightful home whilst escaping the clutches of Russel van Pelt (Cannavale) – the villain desperate to claim the jewel and claim dominion over the land.

 

Bringing the ‘franchise’ into the 21st century, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is a bigger, faster and more action-packed offering than its predecessor. The original board game seems like an antiquated idea in today’s technological age and has handily been replaced by an also antiquated looking video game console – and where animals and mayhem came to the real world in 1995, this time around the protagonists are transported into the virtual world in a nice twist-up. The majority of the movie’s constant stream of laughs (if not belly laughs) comes from the in-game body-swaps that occur and thanks to the performances of the cast, the gag never wears thin – the highly-likable cast actually propels the otherwise thin story into the fun adventure it became. Director Jake Kasdan slyly implements the video game format to allow for plot conveniences to be explained away easily – and Karen Gillan’s ‘controversial’ outfit does receive an explanation.

 

The lead cast all seem to be having a blast playing their ‘real’ counterparts. Dwayne Johnson’s magnetic persona is always entertaining (except for Hercules…) and his awe at his own body is great. Hart’s chemistry with Johnson shines through again and Gillan is ace as the shy, yet badass book-vixen. Jack Black steals the movies funniest moments and is proficient at delivering ‘how to flirt with guys’ lessons. The overarching chemistry between the four main leads allows the movie to step above middling generalness and elevates the movie to its entertaining and surprisingly good perch. The body-switch premise works well and never feels like it’s too much or running out of steam – even the penis jokes work. The young cast also applies themselves adeptly ‚Äčto bookend the movie.

  

Once the plodding first twenty minutes have passed, the pacing of the movie improves and the two-hour runtime never really feels unearned or ponderous as the gang traverse the various pitfalls and danger that the jungle provides – cliffs, snakes, hippos, jaguars and van Pelt’s ruthless motorcycle hunting gang all provide ample opposition for the heroes and their three in-game lives. Any throwback references to the original are sparing, thankfully allowing the movie to stand on its own feet, but there is one nice mention for Jumanji and Robin William’s lead character Alan Parrish. The villain is solidly one-dimensional and offers little to the movie, though his inclusion isn’t majorly important in regards to the journey – the surrounding jungle environment is dangerous enough to be the enemy.

 

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle doesn’t attempt to bring anything new to the table, nor does it need to. It exists for family fun and some good time cinema and on those counts, it succeeds. Enjoyable performances and some good comedy that never falls foul of vulgarity ensure the movie leaves you with a smile on your face, making it better than it had any right to be. Maybe not one of 2017’s ‘greatest’ cinematic accomplishments, but this is one cash-grab that works.

 

Plus, the People’s Eyebrow returns too.

January 1st 2018

© 2016 Matt Hudson / What I Watched Tonight / Essex

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