Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle

Full disclosure: I’ve never read the novel by Chris Van Allsburg or seen Joe Johnston’s 1995 adaptation with Robin Williams. So I broke my ‘Jumanji’ cherry on the CGI-riddled remake starring The Rock and Amy Pond Dwayne Johnson and Karen Gillan.

Full disclosure part two: I went to see it purely because it promised the kind of low-brow entertainment that would detract from the lousy weather and the prospect of going back to work after a fortnight off over Christmas and New Year.

Full disclosure part three: I wouldn’t ordinarily have bothered reviewing something of this ilk, but the blog’s been dormant since Boxing Day and I figured that some new content wouldn’t go amiss.

So: even though I’d had no exposure to its previous incarnations, I went in knowing that it was about some people who get trapped in a game and have to complete it in order to escape. As I understand it the novel and the first film have Jumanji as a board game but since we’ve gone all twenty-first century and shit, it’s a video game in this one.

In fact, it’s a really crap early 90s video game that gets unearthed by four mismatched teens who are compelled to clear out their high school’s storeroom while in detention. They are: Spencer the nerd (Alex Wolff), “Fridge” the football jock (Ser’Darius Blain), Martha the moody social outcast (Morgan Turner) and Bethany the narcissistic bimbo (Madison Iseman). And if you think those descriptions are clichéd and reductive, that’s literally how the script – credited to no fewer than four people – paints them. Their travails occupy the first twenty minutes or so of the film – and long, unfunny, blandly filmed minutes they are – after which they find themselves downloaded not just into the world of Jumanji itself but into different, adult bodies. Spencer becomes the muscle-bound Dr Smolder Bravestone (Johnson), “Fridge” the physically uninspiring Franklin “Moose” Finbar (Kevin Hart), Martha the kick-ass and drop dead gorgeous adventuress Ruby Roundhouse (Gillan) and Bethany a portly middle aged bloke, Professor Sheldon Oberon (Jack Black).

So far, so predictable: body-swap set-up, humour generated from various actors playing against type. And ‘Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle’ (to give it is full GnR-homaging title) does indeed plunder this set-up for all its worth. But here’s the thing: it works. Not all the time, and it’s often wryly amusing rather than laugh-out-loud funny. But it takes hackneyed material and makes it work enough of the time that – once the lacklustre opening sequence is firmly in the rearview mirror – the entertainment value is indisputable.

Johnson is always fun when a role allows him to send himself up. Hart does his usual shtick – in fact, rather overdoes it – but fails to generate much amusement. Gillan fares better, particularly in the scenes where she gets to play off Jack Black. But it’s Black who goes romping away with the Man of the Match Award, not just conjuring moments of hilarious physical comedy, but actually developing Bethany as a character beneath the rumpled and pudgy physique of her avatar. I’ve not seen Black this invested in a role in ages, and it’s great to be reminded of his capabilities as a comic actor.

Elsewhere, director Jake Kasdan – whose directorial debut with the magnificently quirky ‘Zero Effect’ twenty years ago in no way, shape or form pointed to him helming a ‘Jumanji’ remake – has fun sending up the conventions of RPGs and the cheesy internal logical of levels, lives and side quests. He’s not so strong on action scenes, though, and the last reel feels like a tired attempt to throw in as many big stunts as possible rather than continuing to develop pace and content via the satirical possibilities of the subject matter.

Traces of something smarter and funnier flicker here and there throughout the two-hour running time (the excision of a good 20 minutes would have helped no end), but ultimately no-one goes into this kind of film expecting whipsmart genre deconstructions or sophisticated humour. You go into it for a brief respite from the January blues.