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[Review] – ‘Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle’


Release Date: 20 December 2017
Director: Jake Kasdan
Writer: Chris McKenna - Erik Sommers - Scott Rosenberg - Jeff Pinkner [Screenplay] - Chris Van Allsburg [Novel]
Cast: Dwayne Johnson - Kevin Hart - Karen Gillan - Jack Black - Bobby Cannavale - Alex Wolff - Ser’Darius Blain - Madison Iseman - Morgan Turner - Rhys Darby

Posted January 7, 2018 by

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I can’t imagine anyone crying out for a reboot of Jumanji the 1995 fantasy film starring Robin Williams as a man castaway in an alternate reality that can only be accessed through a board game. In any case, remaking Williams’ back catalogue – and I include the forthcoming live action version of Aladdin starring Will Smith as the genie (’10,000 years is… such a long time not to get jiggy’) – strikes me as insensitive. The comedian, who committed suicide on 11 August 2014, was one-of-a-kind and deserves to be remembered for his quick fire wit and devastating mimicry, not to mention compassionate and funny central performances in Good Morning Vietnam, Dead Poets Society, Mrs Doubtfire and Good Will Hunting, for which he won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar in 1998. We miss him, dearly.

But if anyone is going to remake or engineer a sequel to Jumanji, it is extremely wise not to replace him at all. This is the case in the new film, subtitled Welcome to the Jungle, which brings the concept into the (eight bit) video game era. In it, a quartet of teens in detention on staple removal duty (don’t ask) are transported into the jungle parallel universe and become their avatars – weirdly, there is only one female avatar, a cross between Lara Croft and a hitchhiker.

The detention set-up throws us into Breakfast Club territory, which isn’t exactly welcome. I for one am getting fed up of contemporary cinema (and TV) revisiting the 1980s. I don’t know anyone who wanted to model themselves after Andrew Ridgley and George Michael in Wham and The Goonies disappointed when it opened in 1985 – I much prefer the other Steven Spielberg production of that year, Young Sherlock Holmes, which admittedly ripped off Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, but with confectionary that comes alive!

The young cast – Alex Wolff as the nerd Spencer, Ser’Darius Blain as high school football jock Fridge, Madisen Iseman as selfie-obsessed Bethany and Morgan Turner as emo Martha – are appealing; we want to see them battle it out with jungle nasties in the Jumanji-verse. It is therefore disappointing – for about five minutes – for the film to become a body swap-style comedy as Spencer turns into Dwayne Johnson, Fridge into Kevin Hart, Bethany into Jack Black and Martha into Karen Gillan as the afore-mentioned Lara Croft-hitchhiker mash-up.

In the original Jumanji, the teen cast plus Robin Williams are threatened by (then) state of the art CGI animals, not to mention a big game hunter. The sequel features an all powerful jewel used to control animals which is taken from its place by an unscrupulous villain (Bobby Cannavale in command-issuing ‘get them, kill them, how did you let them get away’ mode) and a disposable group of henchmen on motorbikes. Why motorbikes – because all-terrain vehicles didn’t look cool in 1996, when the video game was last used.

The fun comes from Spencer being unsure of his own strength and shouting out sound effects when he beats people up. The Fridge can’t understand why cake is a weakness. Bethany (as a man) has to teach Martha how to be seductive and Martha uses martial arts dance moves, though not exactly by throwing origami on the dance floor.

Each player has three lives and suffers in a variety of bloodless ways – Bethany is swallowed by a hungry hippo early on, a scene in the hands of any other director would be ‘R’-rated.  We never find out what it is like to pass through a hippo’s digestive system, which definitely interests me as a moviegoer.

In a nod to the original, they discover a castaway, played a well-known Disney music star, who, as it turns out, is afraid of flying – shouldn’t he be named after Lars Von Trier? The team have to work together deciphering clues such as ‘you must find the missing part, but it isn’t what you think it is’ and ‘when you see the elephant, start to climb’. Clues like these are screenwriters ‘get out of jail free’ cards, since they justify nonsensical behaviour.

Johnson and Hart once again prove that they are the best comedy duo since Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker – they last appeared together in the 2016 comedy hit, Central Intelligence – though it’s not exactly a crowded field. It is a real pleasure to follow Johnson’s career as the actor proves that he can be successful in any genre – even musical comedy (Moana) so long as it is not a reboot of Baywatch, which was one of 2017’s worst ideas. I’m sure what Johnson would be like in a Michael Haneke drama, but it would be great to see him try.

As for Kevin Hart, early reviews of The Upside, a remake of the 2011 French film, Les Intouchables, in which he takes the Omar Sy role, suggests that he ought to stick to comedy. Jack Black has fun channelling his inner teenage girl, though it is not the best use of his energy – and not one King Kong reference for his return to the jungle – whilst Gillan has fun combining action with physical comedy in a distraction scene. The physical comedy is a bit obvious, but we’ll let that pass.

The result is pacy family entertainment, without the delight of big laughs or wow-making twists. Could all concerned do better? Undoubtedly! The surprise is that Jake Kasdan (son of Lawrence), who is more associated with two-word title ‘adult’ comedy (like Sex Tape and Bad Teacher) makes a creditable transition to comedy-adventure, with set pieces involving de-fanging a snake and flying a helicopter on its side.


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Larry Oliver
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