At the Movies with Alan Gekko: Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle “2017”

At the Movies with Alan Gekko: Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle “2017”

MPAA Rating: PG-13/Genre: Fantasy Adventure Comedy/Stars: Dwayne Johnson, Alex Wolff, Kevin Hart, Ser’Darius Blain, Jack Black, Madison Iseman, Karen Gillan, Morgan Turner, Nick Jonas, Colin Hanks, Rhys Darby, Bobby Cannavale, Marc Evan Jackson, Carlease Burke, Missi Pyle, Maribeth Monroe, Kat Altman, Michael Shacket, William Tokarsky, Rohan Chand, Sean Buxton, Tim Matheson/Runtime: 119 minutes

I think it is safe to start this review off by letting you all in on a little secret. That being that I love with a passion the 1995 slice of cinema Jumanji. Oh sure, there is a part of me that does find it mildly annoying that it’s a kid with my name that gets sucked into the boardgame within the first 30 minutes of the movie (probably because kids loved reminding me of that fact more than once when I was growing up). Along with that, I am very much aware that the film is by no means a perfect film when looking at it from either an overall perspective and/or from the comfortable shade of wistful nostalgia. Yet even with those elements in mind, there is also no denying that between a wonderful Robin Williams performance, a fairly intriguing story, and a collection of effects work that was truly remarkable Jumanji was, and still is, a slice of cinema from my childhood that I love going back and revisiting every now and again. Therefore, you can probably imagine how completely and utterly floored I was when I first found out that the powers that be in the land of movie magic were deciding to remake this beloved property since not only could nothing top the original, but Robin Williams was also tragically no longer with us. Thus, I reasoned, how on Earth could this be done in such a way that would not only respect the late comedic genius, but at the same time prove to be even remotely as successful to an audience as the original was? Then it came out that this wasn’t a remake, but rather a sequel that would star, of all people, Dwayne Johnson and again my mind found itself desperately searching for an answer to the question previously stated. Not that I didn’t have faith in Dwayne Johnson mind you, but because I still felt in my heart and mind that there was no way a sequel could ever live up to the original. Imagine my surprise and delight then to be able to tell you that the sequel in question, and slice of cinema I am reviewing for you today incidentally, 2017’s Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is not only astonishingly respectful to the legacy left behind by its predecessor, but also really freaking good. Like unexpectedly straight out of left field good. To be sure it does happen to have its flaws here and there, but with the aid of wonderful work on both sides of the camera, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is a delightfully distinct cinematic trek through a familiar jungle that you are sure to enjoy taking time and time again.

The plot is as follows: Following a 1996-set prologue which I shan’t spoil for you here, our slice of cinema gets underway in the same town as the original albeit with a solid 2 decades having come and gone since the ending of that movie. It is also here incidentally where we are taken over to the town’s high school and swiftly introduced to a quartet of students from different cliques within the school social hierarchy. They are popular girl Bethany, quiet and cynical Martha, all-star athlete for the school football team Anthony or “Fridge” as he’s better known, and more than slightly nerdy to say nothing of not possessing a single degree of confidence whatsoever Spencer respectively. Yet as distinct and as unlikely as it is that this quartet would be seen together let alone make the *totally rad* choice to hang out outside of school, we see that today Lady Fate has plans to bring them together. Plans that start when the four, for various reasons, all find themselves being placed in that most dreaded of high school punishments known simply as….detention (to be fair ISS was a lot worse when I was in high school, but I digress). As part of their detention, we see that the quartet is assigned by the principal (clearly due to budgetary issues) to clean out the school’s basement. Yet, in the midst of the asbestos and other uncertain substances/items down there, to say nothing of creepy crawlies, we soon the four discover something quite unusual. That being an old video game console with a game inside it called (get this) Jumanji. Now normally, you might be thinking that this is the part of the story where our quartet decide to play the game together and wind up having a fun and productive afternoon where they both all learn something about themselves in the process and even become something close to resembling friends. Well, that’s kind of accurate except for one teeny tiny detail. That being that in this case, the moment the four have chosen their respective characters and hit the START button something else happens. Namely they are instantly sucked into the game itself and transformed into the respective avatars they chose at the beginning (much to their disbelief and/or shock). Thus can our quartet find a way to get in synch with each other as their respective characters and work together in order to both beat and subsequently get out of the game or is it game over for their time in the real world as they know it? That I will leave for you to discover for yourself dear reader…..

Now right off the ol’ joystick, it should be noted that the work done behind the camera in bringing this cinematic trek through the jungle to life is fairly well done. This starts with the fact that this slice of cinema’s crew is very much aware of the rather irritating elements present in video games including NPCs, rather odd flaws that playable characters are often presented with (Crash Bandicoot’s lack of consistent jumping ability for example), and even annoyingly feature film length cutscenes to name but a few examples. As a result, we see that the movie does a wonderful job of making sure to poke legit yet loving fun at these things in a way that feels distinct rather than run of the mill by any stretch. Now I know there are some people who might take issue with the fact that, once inside the game, the narrative does seem to get a bit on the basic side. Having thought about that though, I must admit that this is a fairly brilliant play on the filmmakers’ part. This is not only because if you make the story too complex, you’re most likely going to lose viewers, but also because the basic narrative proves to be another loving tribute to video games of ol’. By that I mean yes a lot of video game storylines nowadays feel less like a story and more like a maze to traverse, but there was a period of time where the narrative for a video game was as simple as “free the other dragons and save the Kingdom from Gnasty Gnorc” and that is what this film’s simplistic yet involved plot is operating as a wonderful ode to. Yet I think more than anything else the main element that the team behind the camera manages to do remarkably well here is that they have managed to capture on film a movie that is able to comprehend just the key element about video games that people love. No it’s not the delightful humor though trust me when I say that this film is chock-full of that nor is it intriguing action beats which this film also has more than its fair share of as well. Rather, it’s the feeling of just having fun and getting to be someone different than your everyday self for a while. Indeed we all have things about us that we wish we could change and in the real world that is possible, but it takes time that we sometimes don’t wish to spend on fixing that specific thing. With a video game though, all we have to do is just put it in the console, wait for it to load, press play, and away we go with the charming and intelligent Nathan Drake or the brave warrior Geralt who has a physique women adore and which makes men not named Henry Cavill green with envy all over to name but a few. Finally, it also doesn’t hurt that this slice of cinema is also very much aware of the film which came before it and as a result the crew behind the camera here has in fact done a wonderful job of making sure to place a few loving winks and nods to the original here that are sure to make fans of that film smile with glee. Suffice it to say that there might be a few issues scattered about throughout this film, but I can safely say that the work done by the crew behind the camera in bringing this world to life is remarkable all the same.

Of course, it goes without saying, but the big element that definitely works in this slice of cinema’s favor would have to be the cast of players (pun intended) that has been assembled in front of the camera to bring the roster of characters vividly to life. Now I would like to point out first and foremost that the quartet of young actors playing our main characters in this do just fine with their respective roles, but there is no denying that the main MVPs in terms of performances in this are the quartet of adult actors playing the avatars that the young adults chose and subsequently get trapped in when they are sucked into the game (quite mind-bending stuff when you really try and wrap your head around it). This starts with Dwayne Johnson as Spencer’s avatar Dr. Bravestone. Indeed Johnson has always been one of the more charismatic performers working in the land of movie magic nowadays and here is brilliant at acting less like…well himself and more like an anxiety-stricken nerd who has suddenly been granted massive muscles and a degree of confidence he never knew he could possess. Suffice it to say that it is a very well-done, quite enjoyable, and legitimately amusing performance from a man who, when he’s not beating people up, is a fairly charismatic comedic presence. Just as terrific as Johnson though is the eternally funny Kevin Hart as Fridge’s avatar Mouse Finbar. Indeed Hart has always been a comedian that has left me nearly crying with his comedic skill and here he is not only in fine form on his own with more than a few downright hilarious moments, but to get the extra benefit of seeing him and real-life bestie Johnson go back and forth with each other comedically as their respective characters makes for a genuinely fun time to be had here as well. Now I did really like the work done here by Karen Gillan as Martha’s avatar Ruby Roundhouse, but at the same time I can’t help but feel like the script didn’t quite give her as much to work with as her male co-stars in this despite one scene that is really well-done. With that in mind though I think I can say that, for me at least, the funniest performance out of the quartet though has to be Jack Black as Bethany’s avatar Professor Shelly Oberon. Indeed Black has always been an actor whom I have admired be it for his performances in film and video games (Brütal Legend anyone?) or even as the lead vocalist for iconic band Tenacious D. Here though Black is absolutely hilarious as he manages to unleash a long-buried side of him to brilliant comedic effect. That side being the, initially, vain, shallow, and social media fixated 18-year-old girl. Indeed not only does Black bring some of the jokes you might expect from a role like this, but he even manages to commit to the part in such a way that you find yourself believing that you aren’t watching Jack Black. Rather, it’s like you are watching a robot Jack Black that is being operated by a 18-year old girl and, in a weird yet effective way, his performance in this is a genuine gem from beginning to end.  Suffice it to say that when you also factor in not-bad work from Nick Jonas, Rhys Darby (who is absolutely hilarious as NPC Nigel), and Bobby Cannavale as an even more nightmarish albeit also more than just a tad bit cartoony to say nothing of one-dimensional as well take on the villain Van Pelt from the original Jumanji to name but a few support players in this it’s clear to me that not only is the cast in this fully aware of the kind of movie they are making, but they are all committed to just having as much fun with their respective characters as possible and as such they all prove to be a genuine blast to follow on screen.

All in all and at the end of the day is Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle a perfect slice of cinema? Honestly no, but then again few movies ever manage to pull that one off so that’s not exactly a fair bar to set for a movie. With that in mind though, does that make this film one that, like the titular game itself, should be avoided at any and all cost? Truth be told I wouldn’t say that either dear reader. Rather, I think the best way I would describe this movie is as one of the more pleasantly delightful cinematic surprises of the year 2017. Indeed here is a film that might not excel at raising your IQ score via thought-provoking material, make you question your reality and everything in it, or even place a pair of kids in the company of a man who was basically a big kid at heart and have them survive all manner of twisted things together from mean pelicans and quicksand to a hunter with a very disturbing desire to hunt people. It will however leave you consistently amused, engaged, and above all entertained pretty much from beginning to end. In that regard therefore I can safely say that this slice of cinema is very much an unmitigated and genuinely fun success. Yes there are issues to be found with this particular slice of cinema should you choose to look hard enough, but I really wouldn’t take the time to do that if I was you. As for everyone else though, I can safely promise a slice of cinema that provides both wonderful work behind the camera as well as phenomenal work in front of it especially in regards to the quartet of adult stars playing the avatars our aspiring Breakfast Club wannabe in this finds themselves for all intents and purposes trapped in for the majority of the movie. Thus Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle might not be perfect, but it is both a wonderful continuation to a timeless movie for one generation and a welcome introduction to that same world for another that I have no doubt you and the rest of the intrepid jungle explorers in your life will be pressing play on for years to come. Make of that what thou will and game on dear reader! On a scale of 1-5 I give Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle “2017” a solid 3.5 out of 5.