Thursday, March 29, 2018

Movie #450: Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is a kinda-sorta sequel to 1995's Jumanji, starring Dwayne Johnson, Jack Black, Karen Gillan, Kevin Hart, Alex Wolff, Ser'Derius Blain, Madison Iseman, and Morgan Turner. It's better than it has any right to be.

In 1996, Alex Vreeke (Mason Guccione) is given the Jumanji board game after his father finds it while jogging. He immediately discards it, so it turns itself into a video game cartridge. Playing it, naturally, sucks in Alex and then...

...cut to 20 years later. Alex has become a local urban legend, but the kids at the local high school have their own issues. Spencer (Wolff) is trying to get back together with his former buddy Fridge (Blain), Fridge is trying to bolster his grade by having Spencer write his papers, Bethany (Iseman) is coping with boyfriend troubles and being a phone-addict butthead, and Martha (Turner) is acting out by not participating in gym class. All four get sent to detention where they find the old video game console, choose characters and get sucked into...Jumanji.

Of course, when they emerge, they've taken the forms of their characters, so nerdy/fearful Spencer is now Dr. Smolder Bravestone (Johnson), nerdy/abrasive Martha is now Ruby Roundhouse (Gillan), athletic/not-terribly-academic Fridge is now "Mouse" Finbar (Hart), and beautifuly/self-absorbed Bethany is now Prof. Sheldon Oberon (Black). The four must complete the game before losing all three of their lives in order to get home.

Which sounds like a pretty standard kids-movie set-up - it's really the same as the original, except that the action takes place in a video game so we don't have to worry about the cops and parents and people on the outside world getting rhino'd, so that's cool. Bobby Cannavale shows up to play Russel Van Pelt, an appropriately gross and menacing villain who's taken control of the beasts of Jumanji. Rhys Darby, who my family knows from Voltron, is the NPC guide that expositions them. All is well.

Except...holy shit, the performances. Jack Black is the absolutely standout, playing Bethany trapped in an unfamiliar body, and I want to note for a moment the absolutely fucking train wreck that setup could have been. Instead, no one ever refers to Bethany as a man. Not once. She says that she's "in the body of an overweight middle-aged man," and she responds with gleeful fascination to having a penis, but never once do any other characters make fun of her situation. Likewise, there's a moment in the movie where she has to give mouth-to-mouth to another (male) character (Nick Jonas playing Jefferson "Seaplane" McDonogh, the avatar that Alex chose when he entered the game). Instead of being played as "ew, gay," which is one hundred percent likely what would have happened if this movie had been made before the year 2000 (being generous), it's a tense moment that allows Bethany to be the hero.

Likewise, Fridge's experience is interesting. He's an athlete who's portrayed as having some trouble in school, but then his character in the game is a zoologist. He's obviously not used to being the guy who knows things, and he comes to embrace that by the end of the movie.

If I'm disappointed in anything, it's Martha. We get a little slice of life for the other three teens, but we don't see Martha until class is already in session, and we never really get a look at what she's about other than "nerd girl." Likewise, her arc never really goes anywhere except inasmuch as she admits to a mutual crush on Spencer, which is nicely handled, but I'd still like to see a little more about who she is when she's not mouthing off to gym teacher.

In general, though, the movie is funny, touching at points, and avoids the lazy, problematic shit that it very much could have done.

My grade: A
Rewatch value: High

Next up: Kong: Skull Island