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CINEMASCOPE: JUNGLE LIVES

January 07, 2018

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Granted, the original Jumanji (1995) wasn’t a perfect film, but viewed from the eyes of a young teenager growing up, I loved this fantasy adventure headlined by Robin Williams, as did many millennials.

So, when I learned that there was a sequel/reboot in the works, my first reaction was that of apprehension taking into account Hollywood’s track record with remakes of old intellectual properties that no one asked for. Surprisingly, especially if you check in your brain at the door, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is an enjoyable action/adventure comedy with some of the funniest scenes in any film released last year. And if looked at impartially without giving in to the nostalgia factor, dare I say, even better than the original.

When Welcome to the Jungle begins you quickly learn that this is indeed a sequel and not a reboot, when in a scene set in 1996, the magical board game from the original transforms into a video game. Here, a teenager who had been dismissive of it when his father had found it on a beach, Alex Vreeke (Mason Guccione) is sucked into the game. Two decades later, we meet four high school students who are characterised as caricatures from high school comedies. There is Spencer Gilpin (Alex Wolff), a smart kid and a geeky gamer, Bethany Walker (Madison Iseman), a cheerleader who can’t get enough of promoting herself on social media, Anthony “Fridge” Johnson (Ser’Darius Blain), a muscular football player type who doesn’t believe in his own intellectual capacity and Martha Kaply (Morgan Turner), a shy geeky type who doesn’t have much regard for authority. As punishment for their various indiscretions the four are tasked by their principal to clean his basement. Here, of course, they discover Welcome to the Jungle. When they give it a start, they notice it is a five-player video game, with only four characters available for selection.

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is an enjoyable action/adventure comedy with some of the funniest scenes in any film released in 2017

These characters are classic archetypes from the ’90s era of gaming. There is Dr Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson), a butt-kicking tall muscular yet also intelligent archeologist, Professor Sheldon “Shelly” Oberon (Jack Black), a short rotund unkempt archeologist, Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillian), a commando who is skilled in all sorts of martial arts techniques and is dressed as scantily as you’d expect from a one-dimensional old-school female video game character and Franklin “Mouse” Finbar (Kevin Hart), a diminutive zoologist and weapons expert.

Hilariously, the students end up with unexpected avatars. The somewhat spineless nerdy teenager ends up as the Bravestone, the high school princess who is all about appearance ends up as Professor Oberon, the jock ends up as Mouse, and the bookworm girl is now the attractive commando, Ruby.

I won’t bore you with the narrative. Needless to say it is as throwaway as most ’90s video game plotlines and perhaps could have been more interesting. Where Welcome to the Jungle shines is in the hilarious performances. As a cowardly teenager trapped inside the body of the heroic powerhouse, The Rock kills it, having a lot of fun in his role. Meanwhile, Jack Black steals every scene he is in, playing an Instagram addict trapped inside the body of an aging professor with hilarity. The other two aren’t bad either, though not as memorable — Kevin Hart is funny enough but doesn’t bring anything new to the role for viewers familiar with his other work.

I also enjoyed the action in Welcome to the Jungle though I felt that some of the CGI wasn’t as convincing as it could have been. But as a lifelong gamer, my favourite aspect of Welcome to the Jungle was how it embraces video games with everything from character strengths and weaknesses to objectives, to NPCs (non-player characters), all woven together in an amusing way. It is interesting to consider that many gamers have been waiting for decades for a good film based on a video game, and that when it finally shows up it is based on a fictional one. That’s because the priorities here are quality and not needless fan service.

Rated PG-13 for adventure action, suggestive content and some language

Published in Dawn, ICON, January 7th, 2018