Saturday, December 23, 2017

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle

It started with a 1981 children's book by Chris Van Allsburg, who also wrote Zathura (later also made into a movie, directed by Jon Favreau). Then Jumanji became a 1995 movie starring Robin Williams and directed by Joe Johnston, which I fondly remember seeing with my college friends. I have seen it more recently, and to be honest, the special effects don't look all that good today. But with a little willing suspension of disbelief, it's a humdinger of a fantasy, featuring a board game that brings the animal, vegetable, and human dangers of the deepest, darkest jungle into a small town in New England - the same Brantford, N.H. in which this something-of-a-sequel is set. (Watch closely for a reference to Williams' character in this movie.)

The differences are huge between the original Jumanji and this generation's retooling. In the 1995 version, children playing a dusty old board game bring the magic of the jungle out into their everyday world, and encounter a boy who was sucked into the game a generation ago and could only come back when somebody resumed playing it. The 2017 version flips this around, with (SPOILER ALERT!) present-day children getting sucked into a dusty old video game(!) and meeting someone who's been trapped in the jungle since before they were born. They must survive rampaging beasts, venomous varmints, villainous henchman, and the wiles of a creepoid named Van Pelt (another name that should ring a bell, if you were a fan of the first flick), to restore a sacred jewel to the eye socket of a giant panther idol, breaking the curse that haunts Jumanji. They have to win the game to get back home, and each of the kids has three lives to do it. Luckily, the game gives them various strengths. Unluckily, it also gives most of them weaknesses. (Cake? Really?)

Also, since this time around the game has configured itself as a video game, each character has an avatar. Therein lies perhaps the movie's biggest strength and weakness, both in one. The movie mines comedy gold from the transformation of the high school football star "Fridge" into shrimpy Kevin Hart, the scared-of-everything nerd into Dwayne "the Rock" Johnson, the athletically declined wallflower girl into a kickass babe (Doctor Who's Karen Gillan), and the self-absorbed suburban princess into Jack Black. On the other hand, it misses the opportunity to let the young heroes chart their character growth "as themselves," against the challenges the game throws at them. I think replacing the actors playing the kids inside the game takes some of the edge off the story, by making them less relatable to ordinary people. Their apparent distance from the audience (by being transformed into superhuman avatars, if not caricatures) might make it harder for people, on the level of ordinary mortals, to sympathize with their struggles, or to be charmed by a touch of romance - especially in the case of the "couple" played by Jack Black and Nick Jonas. They have to work harder than I think they should have to keep the audience mindful of the risk they are taking as each character gets closer to using up all his or her lives.

Also featured in the movie are Alex Wolff, the former Naked Brothers Band star who recently played Boston marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev in Patriots Day, and Bobby Cannavale of Third Watch, Rhys Darby of Flight of the Conchords, Missi Pyle of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Colin Hanks of TV's Fargo, and an uncredited Tim Matheson as the creepy old man who tells Wolff, "This world devours kids like you."

All in all, it was a funny, action-packed story, with lots of in-jokes about gaming, good development of the main characters and their friendship, a nice message about facing the dangers of life with courage, lots of visual effects that never seemed conspicuously bad (something I was watching closely for, recalling some of the defects of the 1995 movie), a gosh-wow fantasy concept that the characters accept without too much difficulty, and an "awww" of light-hearted romance.

And now, the three scenes that made the movie for me: (1) After taking a crash course in flirting from material girl Jack Black, "Ruby Roundhouse" attempts to divert the attention of a couple of "non-player characters." Anyone who sees her "first time seductress" walk, as she approaches her marks, must acknowledge Karen Gillan to be a master (mistress?) of physical comedy. (2) The same girl, in her teenager form, tells off the gym teacher in a simultaneously embarrassing and awesome way. Those of us who remember being physically awkward nerds who never saw the point of P.E. class, cringed and cheered. (3) The scene in which the four hero teens discover that their fifth number got home from in-game 20 years ahead of them, and is now a grownup with kids of his own. For one of the kids in particular, it's a bittersweet moment, and an awkward consequence of the structure of this story that could either make or break this movie. Without taking a position on whether it did one or the other, I have to admire the film for including the scene. It was a daring risk.

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