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Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 12/24/17 17:48:49

"Exciting idea, as these sequels go; timid execution."
2 stars (Pretty Crappy)

There's not quite desperation to this 22-year-later "legacyquel", but something close to it, like Sony saw everyone else scoring with long-running properties and said, crap, what have we got? And so they settled on "Jumanji" (a likable family adventure that's had more staying power than many effects-centered flicks), signed a decent cast, and then threw enough screenwriters at it until they had something that pushed a lot of the right buttons but saw any clever contributions canceled out, until what was a fairly fresh idea for a new take on the material loses its luster before too long.

It posits that when American kids grew tired of board games, the game that magically disgorged a bunch of jungle animals into a suburban home back in 1995 evolved itself into a video game system, although even that soon wound up forgotten on a series of shelves before being found by four kids given detention - nerdy hypochondriac Spencer (Alex Wolff), football star Fridge (Ser'Darius Blain), social-media star Bethany (Madison Iseman), and introverted Martha (Morgan Turner) - find it among the piles of things taken in for a junk drive. They turn it on and get sucked in, emerging in the land of Jumanji in the form of a number of ironic avatars: Spencer a mass of pure muscle (Dwayne Johnson), Fridge is a short sidekick (Kevin Hart), Bethany a portly middle-aged man (Jack Black), and Martha a statuesque fighter (Karen Gillan). They - along with Alex (Nick Jonas), who has been there a while - are given a mission to return a gem to the eye of the jaguar statues where it belongs, but villain Van Pelt (Bobby Cannavale), who has control of the local animal life, will do anything to stop them.

Despite having what seems like a lot going on, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle seems weirdly less ambitious than the original - where that was a sort of contained and constrained mayhem, there was a bit of Gremlins to it, not afraid to scare kids a little and hide a bit of horror underneath the flashy special effects. This one gives its characters something of an open world but seems like it's even more locked on a path than the one based on a board game, not touching what's scary except to make jokes (including way more gags about the penis of Bethany's male avatar than parents who remember the first fondly and are taking their own kids may like). The jokes about video games seem about ten years out of date and are explained to the point where they're no longer funny, and the path the characters follow feels like it's just adventure-movie spare parts with their rough exteriors smoothed out until the sense of pulpy fun is muted along with some of the genre's less enlightened traits.

It leaves the movie without much of an action-adventure hook. Jumanji was a special-effects showcase that aged well in part because when its CGI animals were no longer state-of-the-art, being unreal still worked for them; Welcome to the Jungle's beasts never really have the same sort of wow factor to start with and the script often throws the party at Van Pelt's faceless, boring mercenary goons anyway. Director Jake Kasdan and his team stage a decent action sequence or three, but nothing extraordinary by 2017 standards, and the conceit that these characters have three lives not only dulls the suspense a bit but forces every challenge to have a similar solution. The stereoscopic conversion is pretty decent, although not quite enough to justify an upgraded ticket price.

The very likable cast only really bats .500, as Dwayne Johnson and Jack Black dive into playing mismatches. Johnson always seems to be having the most fun in a movie when he's playing a character as un-Rock-like as possible, although what makes his Alex work is that he finds something universal to Spencer instead of just an exaggerated nerd caricature. Black hits a nice comic sweet spot as well, never letting the audience forget he's playing a 17-year-old girl but not overdoing the physicality of it (and, though it can seem a small thing, props to the filmmakers for never misgendering Bethany or having the other characters treat her as some sort of freak). Unfortunately, Kevin Hart and Karen Gillan don't really get that sort of material very often. Hart is all right at doing Kevin Hart stuff - he's a tremendously popular comedian for a reason - but it's tough to connect him to the self-assured kid we see at the start. Gillan suffers for the filmmakers never really seeming to pin down what Martha is like, aside from "kind of outsider-y", a real waste in that she proves charming as heck when finally given something half-interesting to do (and "Martha and Spencer have a mutual crush is really only half-interesting). Nick Jonas is a very likable addition when he shows up, managing some pathos while still making Alex upbeat and likable, though Bobby Cannavale is a bland-as-heck villain who doesn't even get to make a joke about how thin and purpose-built video game characters often are the way Rhys Darby does as an expositing NPC.

It leaves what's kind of a one-joke movie only able to tell that joke half the time, and the action and visual effects aren't special enough to make this feel as unusual or exciting as the first. There's fun to be had here, but always the lingering sense that there could have been more if the studio had been a little more confident in its concept and let the filmmakers run rather than playing it safe at every point.

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