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Friday, February 23, 2018

Review: Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle

A Hilarious Love Letter to Video Games

By Chris Sabga

Release Date: December 20th, 2017 – U.S.
Rating: PG-13
Genre: Action, Adventure, Comedy
Running Time: 119 minutes
Director: Jake Kasdan
Writers: Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers, 
Scott Rosenberg, Jeff Pinkner
Cast: The Rock, Kevin Hart, 
Jack Black, Karen Gillan, 
Rhys Darby, Bobby Cannavale, 
Nick Jonas, Alex Wolff, Ser'Darius Blain, 
Madison Iseman, Morgan Turner, 
Missi Pyle, Marc Evan Jackson 

"Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle" is an unapologetic love letter to video games that left me laughing almost nonstop.

The film begins with four high school kids getting detention: shy nerd Spencer (Alex Wolff), stocky football star Fridge (Ser'Darius Blain, whose character seems like an obvious nod to NFL player William "The Refrigerator" Perry), socially-awkward loner Martha (Morgan Turner), and vapid teen queen Instagram addict Bethany (Madison Iseman).

There are a couple of fun adult cameos, with Marc Evan Jackson as the principal (he's perhaps best known for his role as Shaun from "The Good Place," playing the same type of dryly entertaining character here) and Missi Pyle ("Dodgeball") as the coach.

As punishment, the children are forced to clean the school basement. There, they discover a dusty old video game system. The cartridge included is, of course, "Jumanji." As soon as they press "Start" on the controller, they're suddenly inside the game, where they literally turn into the characters they just selected.

  • Geeky Spencer becomes musclebound action hero Dr. Smolder Bravestone (The Rock).
  • Imposing football star Fridge shrinks into a mini-refrigerator, embodying the much shorter and scrawnier form of zoologist Franklin "Mouse" Finbar (Kevin Hart).
  • Bookish outcast Martha morphs into buxom Lara Croft wannabe Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan), complete with a tight top and overly short pants that could work nowhere else but in an over-the-top action movie or video game like "Jumanji." (Luckily for them – and us – "Welcome to the Jungle" is both.)
  • And – most hilariously of all – phone-addicted queen bee Bethany transforms into Professor Shelly Oberon (Jack Black), not realizing until it's too late that Shelly is actually short for Sheldon.

"Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle" smartly spends several minutes allowing the kids to explore their new bodies, characters, and abilities. It's hysterically funny watching them to react to such an unimaginable situation.

But the real fun comes from the way "Jumanji" inhabits the world of a video game, with amusing nods to all of the quirks and idiosyncrasies gamers take for granted that are bizarre in any other context.

Almost every video game has a "life bar." So, too, does this one – in the form of disappearing tattoos on the characters' wrists. There are also pop-up menus in most games that display important information. In the world of "Jumanji," a character can press on his or her pec like a button to bring up a list of skills, strengths, and weaknesses – the funniest of which are cake (weakness) and dance fighting (strength). Naturally, death is never final in any game – unless you're down to your last life. Like many video games, dying in "Jumanji" takes the form of a quick explosion – poof! they're gone – and then the character falls down from the sky to play again. Real-word logic and physics don't apply here, just as they don't in many games. There are also "NPCs" – non-player characters – who repeat the same scripted, stilted dialogue whether appropriate or not. The most amusing of these is their tour guide, Nigel (Rhys Darby).

All of this will seem like a foreign language to anyone who has never picked up a video game controller, but any gamer reading this will smile in recognition.

The Rock, Kevin Hart, Karen Gillan, and Jack Black do an incredible job of portraying confused, scared kids who are stuck in new bodies and trapped inside a video game. They may be adults in the world of "Jumanji" but they're still really children. That has its benefits too, though, because Spencer can use his gaming skills to progress from "level" to "level" with the goal of getting everyone back home to the real world. As much as I love The Rock and Kevin Hart (I hope they do 20 more movies together), and as great as Karen Gillan is here, the underrated Jack Black steals the show as a shallow teenage girl who now has to contend with being a fat middle-aged man.

As the fearful foursome progresses, they eventually run into two other major characters. Jefferson "Seaplane" McDonough (Nick Jonas) seems like a heroic fighter pilot but he's really another kid named Alex who is also stuck in the game. He's down to his last "life" and afraid to move forward because a tough "level" has claimed his previous" lives." They all have to contend with the villainous Van Pelt (Bobby Cannavale), who is the "final boss" – another video game staple.

"Welcome to the Jungle" comes 22 years after 1995's "Jumanji." but it's a standalone "sequel" that requires no knowledge of the original. However, there is one reference to Robin Williams' character, Alan Parrish, from the first film. There are also nods to The Rock's other career – as a professional wrestler. In an action scene, we see The Rock's finishing move, the Rock Bottom, and his character refers to himself in the third person at one point like The Rock always did in the WWE. All of that is right in line with the clever winks provided throughout.

"Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle" is the rare example of an action-comedy that's smartly written, has clever characterization, and is actually funny. It's the perfect movie to see when you need to take your mind off your problems and simply laugh in the dark for two hours. 

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