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Review: Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle

Review “Jumanji:Welcome to the Jungle”
I love Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. He’s an incredible actor who can do action and be funny. I also happen to love that he’s a big sci-fi geek. Because of him, I was totally expecting the new Jumanji film to be fun. I was concerned how well it would fit into with the old movie and if the comedy would go over the top. This movie rose above even my expectations, the modern take on the original movie fun and this was one of the best action comedy movies I’ve seen all year. Johnson was stellar and his co-stars kept up with him every step of the way, making for one hilarious, awesome jungle ride!

This premise is simple, keeping in line with the original “Jumanji”. It begins with the scene at the end of the original movie with the game buried in the sand on a beach. The twist comes when the game is picked up, given to a teenager, and goes through a metamorphosis becoming a 1990 style video console Nintendo like game, sucking the players into the game instead of the creatures coming alive in our reality.

We’re introduced to nerdy Spencer (Alex Wolff) who gets detention for helping his former best friend, football player Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain) cheat in school. Two girls join them, Bethany (Madison Iseman) whose self-absorption with her phone is her downfall and geeky Martha (Morgan Turner) who talked back to her gym teacher. During their punishment, they discover the game, tucked in a corner of the school. They pick out characters but as they start the game, they get sucked into it and turned into their avatars in a transformation much like Freaky Friday. Spencer becomes muscular Dwayne Johnson, Fridge becomes zoologist Kevin Hart, who is two feet shorter and a lot less athletic, Martha becomes kick-ass Karen Gillan who can fight like a ninja and Bethany becomes overweight, male Jack Black, cryptographer with no phone.

The four find that they have the same skills as their characters with three lives etched on their arms in the form of a tattoo. They quickly find out that their lives can be lost and they don’t know what will happen if they lose them all. Their only way out of the game is to interact with the non-player characters, who are limited to certain phrases, leaving the teens to puzzle their way through the riddles to solve the curse of Jumanji. Not only must they survive the jungle but they must fight a villain Van Pelt (Bobby Cannavale) who has control of all the animals in the jungle world and wants the giant emerald they must use to break the curse. Along the way, they are joined by Alex (Nick Jonas) who got sucked into the game in 1996 and hasn’t been able to escape. With his help, the four must find a way to work together to defeat the game and escape with their lives, that are slowly being whittled away.

There are several things to love about this movie. One of the first is the fresh, modern spin on the game of Jumanji while still retaining some of the elements from the original book and 1995 film with Robin Williams. The beginning of the movie is a direct jump from the end of that film, but it is quickly brought to modern day and our four teenagers, with the clever update to a video game. There are references to the original in the drums, some of the animals used in the jungle of Jumanji and a nod to Robin Williams character. Those touches are just enough to add a touch of nostalgia to this re-make/sequel.

Another element that is brilliant is the use of video game elements. For anyone who’s played video games, this hearkens back to those original games, with the character selection and archetypes. Each archetype brings a strength and weakness to the team but working together is key. Another touch is the three lives each “character” has. If they die in the game, they reset just like a computer game and their character loses a bar. They must find a way to defeat the game before they lose all their lives because they have no way of knowing what will happen to them in reality if they die in the game. While there is nothing original about the video game concepts, the use of them is well executed in the film and adds a fresh spin on the original Jumanji game.

What makes this film really work, though is the acting and humor. The actors are completely committed to their characters. Dwayne Johnson captures nerdy awkwardness so well that when he freaks at a squirrel it is totally believable. The director also uses Johnson’s natural charisma in humorous ways, having one of his character’s strengths be smoldering intensity and every time it is used, I cracked up. Karen Gillan is amazingly geeky and so painfully bad at flirting that again, you must laugh. I’ve been that awkward girl and I know every moment of those scenes are real which is what makes her performance so funny. Kevin Hart is great as the jock who finds knowledge to be a power and learns to rely on more than strength. Jack Black succeeded so well at being a teenage girl that it was scary and he stole almost every scene he was in. He was perfect, including a scene figuring out his ‘equipment’ managing to bring laughs with his character but still respectful to women. The line, “It has a handle.” is impossible not to bring you to laughter. Nick Jonas did a good job as the trapped Alex, especially when he finds out how long he’s been stuck in Jumanji.

The only slight detraction was the predictability. I knew how the game had to end and it uses a lot of the same premises as the first movie. Ultimately, it is very much about the friends working together. However, the ending had a surprise twist utilizing a game concept that worked incredibly well and I did not see coming. In addition, even though Bethany is very much a flirt, they allowed the character to grow beyond that stereotype and at the end, she didn’t end up with the boy. As a female, I loved that twist. It’s also one of the best takes on a body swap movie I’ve seen.

The laughs were perfectly timed, never over the top and the physical comedy along with the use of video game technology ideas made this film almost perfect. If the acting hadn’t been so good, it might have fallen flat but as it was, I was completely entertained. Dwayne Johnson was masterful as a geeky teenage boy but so too were his co-stars, especially Jack Black. If you like any of these actors or you like the original and want a fantastic film, go see this. Welcome to the fun!
Rating: 4.5 stars

Release date: December 20, 2017 (USA)
Director: Jake Kasdan
Film series: Jumanji Film Series
Screenplay: Jake Kasdan, Scott Rosenberg, Jeff Pinkner, Erik Sommers, Chris McKenna
Production companies: Columbia Pictures, Radar Pictures

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