Friday, December 22, 2017

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle — Fast-paced fun

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (2017) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG-13, for fantasy action, mild profanity and considerable blue humor

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.22.17

When it comes to the action comedy genre, the pitfalls awaiting careless directors and scripters are far more dangerous than anything faced by the characters in this film.

Too many dumb jokes. Relentless mugging by unrestrained cast members. Too much slapstick. Eye-rolling vulgarity. Gratuitous property damage. The list goes on.

Conquering one difficult task merely leads to a harder challenge, as this saga's reluctant
gamers repeatedly discover: from left, Dr. Sheldon Oberon (Jack Black), Jefferson
"Seaplane" McDonough (Nick Jonas), Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan), Dr. Smolder
Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson) and Franklin "Moose" Finbar (Kevin Hart).
Happily, director Jake Kasdan sidestepped all those miscalculations, which is a surprise — frankly — given that his résumé is littered with disposable junk such as Sex Tape, Bad Teacher and Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story.

Much-deserved credit also goes to writer Chris McKenna, whose initial story was deftly fine-tuned with help from Erik Sommers, Scott Rosenberg and Jeff Pinkner. And, of course, they all borrowed a bit from the 1995 Robin Williams version, which in turn was adapted loosely from Chris Van Allsburg’s popular 1981 children’s picture book. (Got all that?)

However the gestation played out, this new film is a very welcome surprise: droll, clever, fast-paced, exciting and laden with enough gender-based humor to fuel the next half-dozen relationship comedies. I can’t quite call the result family-friendly, because the PG-13 rating is well earned by risqué one-liners ... but they’re all quite funny, and crisply delivered by a quartet of practiced scene-stealers.

This’ll be a popular repeat-viewing experience, because half the fun is zeroing in on everybody else’s expression — not possible, the first time through — as each verbal zinger is unleashed.

While it’s true that veteran video gamers will most enthusiastically embrace (and understand) the core premise, the learning curve is gentle enough for uninitiated mainstream viewers, who will return home well-versed in jargon such as “game lives” and NPCs (non-player characters).

As those familiar with Van Allsburg’s book know, Jumanji is a “haunted” board game with the disorienting ability to amaze — and endanger — players by bringing actual jungle environments and animals into the real world. No surprise, then, that such a game would adapt to changing times — in order to remain seductively enticing — by re-inventing itself as a late 20th century-style home video game.

The new roster of unsuspecting victims, initially associated solely by their presence in the same high school, includes Spencer (Alex Wolff), a smart but neurotic hypochondriac; Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain), an overly cocky jock too “busy” to do his own homework; Bethany (Madison Iseman), the school’s condescending, self-obsessed queen bee-yatch; and the outspoken but socially awkward Martha (Morgan Turner). Only after-school detention could bring this quartet together, at which point a make-work assignment to clean up an unused classroom takes a sinister turn, when Spencer finds a dusty, long-unused video game console.

With you-know-what stuck in the game slot. Which we already know is dangerous, thanks to an intriguing prologue set 20 years early.

Looking for a break in the tedium, the four teens larkishly power the game up and choose characters. At which point, things get ... decidedly weird.

They materialize in a dense jungle environment, their souls now occupying characters — avatars — selected mostly on the basis of misleading names and descriptions.

Spencer has become international archaeologist/explorer Dr. Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson), a consummate action hero who is fearless, faster than a speeding bullet, and skilled with weapons and hand-to-hand combat: all attributes that the meek teen hasn’t the faintest notion how to utilize.

The hunky Fridge, in contrast, is stuck in the vertically challenged frame of expert zoologist Franklin “Moose” Finbar (Kevin Hart), who is characterized mostly by physical weakness ... along with a vulnerability that’s too hilarious to reveal here.

Plain-Jane Martha winds up in the scantily clad body of Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan, still much beloved as Doctor Who’s Amy Pond), a martial arts master and “killer of men” who’s both a skilled bad-ass and a bodacious babe ... again, attributes the poor girl can’t begin to exploit.

Bethany, finally, winds up as Dr. Shelly Oberon: an expert in cartography, archeology and paleontology. Alas, “Shelly” is short for Sheldon, and the image-conscious Bethany now inhabits the portly body of the very middle-aged Jack Black. At which point, the gender-switching humor comes fast and furious: so fast, in fact, that we’re often two jokes behind, thanks to laughing so hard at the first one.

Needless to say, watching Black channel his inner teenage girl is a stitch.

As is true of the other three, all of whom do well with bewilderment, stunned disbelief and — in Hart’s case — righteous indignation, given that Fridge has become the team’s diminutive liability. Even Black’s Dr. Oberon is more resourceful.

They don’t have much time to adjust to their new bodies, or this new reality. The environment is highly dangerous, as they quickly learn, with only a small number of “do-overs” before a game fatality becomes ... well ... nobody is certain. But it can’t be good.

In the grand tradition of games ranging from The Secret of Monkey Island to Tomb Raider — Gillan a smokin’ hot stand-in for Lara Croft — the quartet is faced with a quest. Jumanji’s environment is threatened by Van Pelt (Bobby Cannavale), a greedy rival adventurer who snatched a grapefruit-sized green gem from the realm’s massive Jaguar Idol, thereby acquiring the ability to command all of the jungle’s birds and beasts.

And insects, as he occasionally demonstrates, always to ookie effect.

As longtime fans of multi-player games are aware, such quests are possible only when the participants collaborate, relying — under often bizarre and puzzling circumstances — on each other’s strengths and weaknesses. This film’s beguiling narrative gets its emotional juice from the gentle life lessons inserted along the way, as these four misfits learn to become better versions of their real-world selves ... amid hair’s-breadth escapes, while trying to solve impenetrable riddles. (Always presented in rhyme.)

A few issues are noticeable. Van Pelt never takes full advantage of his power to command animals, aside from relying on a nasty-looking vulture to keep an eye on our heroes. And while Hart matches Black for the lightning-swift delivery of one-liners, Fridge definitely gets short shrift (pun intended) when it comes to character development and game worthiness.

Such minor lapses matter little, when surrounded by so much clever storytelling, bawdy banter and gender-stereotyping role reversals. Best sequence by far: Bethany’s attempt (in Jack Black’s body) to teach Martha how to flirt (since she hasn’t the slightest idea how to, ah, properly exploit Gillan’s body).

Nick Jonas has a solid supporting role that I’ll leave unspecified, since — as is the case with games of this nature — discovery and surprise are important.

Visual effects supervisor Jerome Chen has a lot of fun with the various beasties and Indiana Jones-style perils that threaten our merry band; production designer Owen Paterson sets a mean jungle stage. And it’s a credit to editors Steve Edwards and Mark Helfrich, that the two-hour running time never feels excessive. Kasdan and his cast maintain a spirited, crowd-pleasing level of entertainment throughout.

Wary expectations — reviving a Robin Williams franchise two decades later? — sometimes lead to pleasant surprises. Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is just such a treat.

Now, if only All Concerned can resist the lure of the sequel that this film — a certain surprise hit — will encourage...

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