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New Release Review - JUMANJI: WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE

JUMANJI: WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE review
Four high schoolers are transported to a strange world after discovering an old video game system.







Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Jake Kasdan

Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Karen Gillan, Kevin Hart, Jack Black, Missi Pyle, Bobby Cannavale, Nick Jonas

JUMANJI: WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE poster


Hollywood's current obsession with mining nostalgia has so far focussed chiefly on the '80s, the decade that saw pop culture truly explode into a commercially exploitable industry. By comparison, the '90s is looked back on as the decade in which the 'indie' world fought back, both in music and cinema, so it's not so easily exploited now - don't expect big budget remakes of Pulp Fiction or Clerks anytime soon.

Ironically, one of the commercial '90s movies that elicits the sort of childhood nostalgia usually reserved for the '80s work of Spielberg and his gang of proteges is a movie that at the time evoked memories of that Amblin era - Joe Johnston's 1995 Jumanji. Like Joe Dante's 1998 Small Soldiers, Johnston's film felt like a movie that arrived 10 years too late on its initial release, possibly because the Chris Van Allsburg book it was based on was published in 1981. As such, Jumanji is now ripe for a reboot, and so we have Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (not to be confused with another Dwayne Johnson movie from 2003).

JUMANJI: WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE

Functioning as both a sequel and reboot, Jumanji: WTTJ opens with the Jumanji game chest - tossed into a canal at the end of the original - being discovered in 1996 by a father who takes it home to his teenage son Alex (Mason Gussione). Alex isn't too impressed by the board game found inside, but further rummaging unveils a video game cartridge. Booting up the cartridge in his generic, definitely not a Nintendo games console, Alex is subsequently evaporated.

Cut to present day, and the home Alex once resided in has now become run down, a source of local lore, like Haddonfield's Myers' house. When four teenagers find themselves forced to clean out their school basement as part of detention (do American high schools really make kids perform manual labour as punishment?), they come across Alex's old console, complete with the Jumanji cartridge. Hooking it up to a TV, they each select a character, only to find themselves magically transported to the world of Jumanji, a cross between Hawaii and the set of an Indiana Jones movie.

JUMANJI: WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE

The quartet of kids now find themselves inhabiting the physical bodies of the characters they selected. Nerdy Spencer (Alex Wolff) is now the man mountain Smolder Bravestone (Johnson); image obsessed cheerleader Bethany (Madison Iseman) is none too happy to find herself in the portly male body of Shelly Oberon (Jack Black); jock Fridge (Ser'Darius Blain) loses a foot in height to become Moose Finbar (Kevin Hart); and socially awkward bookworm Martha (Morgan Turner) loses her dignity in the scantily clad body of Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan).

As a 'cut scene' conveniently explains, to get back to the real world, the quartet of unwilling players must wrestle an emerald stone from the big baddy of Jumanji, the scar-faced Van Pelt (a wasted Bobby Cannavale).

When the first images of this sequel were released online, there was much condemnation of the skimpy outfit worn by Gillan. Anyone familiar with the sexist portrayal of women in video games could guess that the film would explicitly comment on this through Gillan's outfit, and it does, but it's a case of having its cake and eating it - the movie gets to tut tut at the male gaze of video game designers while giving its target audience of young boys some female flesh to ogle. Such confused commentary on image, representation and body issues is rife in J:WTTJ. The wiry Spencer falls immediately in love with his new body in the game world, so much so that he's torn over whether to return home or not, but Martha convinces him that he has a lot more to offer than looks. While proffering a commendable 'be comfortable in your skin' message, the film doesn't hold back on making cheap jokes at the diminutive stature of Hart, or the rotund physique of Black. 'Be comfortable in your skin, but learn to take a joke,' would seem to be the ultimate message for teenagers here.

JUMANJI: WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE

But enough about body politics, this is a movie about fighting giant snakes, outrunning motorcycle gangs and punching panthers - how is the action? Well lets just say the absence of Joe Johnston is heavily felt here, with blandly constructed set-pieces that are often dogged by second rate CG. There's also very little action delivered over the course of its two hours, as the film focusses more on comedy, with scene after scene revolving around the quartet bickering among themselves while moaning about the bodies and situation they've found themselves in.

The biggest problem with J:WTTJ is that the four young actors who play the protagonists in the real world share a far more convincing dynamic than the adult stars who portray their in-game avatars, and as such the movie's bookends have a charm that's absent from everything in between. I've rarely seen a group of actors display such a lack of chemistry as Johnson, Gillan, Black and Hart, who barely make eye contact with each other, forcing me to wonder if they all ate at separate tables at lunch time. The result is an enjoyable, 15 minute high school comedy sandwiching a dull, comically inert, 105 minute action movie.

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is in UK/ROI cinemas December 20th.




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