Should You Roll The Dice On The Jumanji Sequel?

Jumanji-Welcome-To-The-Jungle-Movie-Trailer-2017

1995’s Robin Williams classic Jumanji holds a special place for me in the Great-But-Also-Kind-Of-Terrible Movie Hall of Fame.  I watched this movie religiously growing up, to the point where I can rattle off quotes from the film in such a manner as to make people visibly uncomfortable with my presence.  Perhaps it was the gamer in me entranced by the (to this day) VERY beautifully designed board game used in the movie, or maybe it was just something more innocent like a crush on young Kirsten Dunst.  Better yet, maybe it was Robin Williams playing a protagonist far more reserved than usual, who only resorted to outlandish antics when the need arose for such things rather than making them a staple of the character.  It could even have been the iconic and spell-binding African aesthetic that permeates the film, at least as far as the game and it’s influence is concerned.  There are lions, stampedes of elephants and rhinos, monkeys, and even a big-game hunter, all of which come out of a board game using carved animal pieces as player tokens.

The whole thing is a blast from start to finish, even if it isn’t objectively all that good.  It was a decent film a long time ago, which naturally made it perfect for a modern day high-polish Hollywood reboot.

As such a fan of the original film, but not so much Hollywood reboots decades down the line, I was skeptical about 2017’s Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle.  A reboot starring The Rock, Kevin Hart, personal crush Karen Gillan, and the always lovable Jack Black? Where Jumanji is a…video game?  That they get…sucked…in…to???

This was going to be a train-wreck, I was sure of it.

What made the original so compelling for me is that there were some very dramatic parts and the movie did a great job of interspersing them throughout an admittedly silly film.  Alan’s struggles with his father are front and center in the entire film (to the point where the big-game hunter Alan fears is played by the same actor as his father) and the feelings of danger are very real throughout.  Jumanji is a very real threat and takes the movie to a few dark places.  The entire film played more like a race-against-time thriller: can they complete the game and stop Jumanji before it consumes their town?

I knew when I watched the trailer for Jumanji 2: Jungle Boogaloo that this new movie would be lacking all of the things that I loved so much about the original.  The jungle I imagined in the original looks nothing at all like the jungle presented in the trailers for the new film.  It was far too clean and well…too Hollywood.  It didn’t look like the grungey, grimy, dark and depressing death-trap of a place that I had pictured the world inside Jumanji to be.  These goofy new characters would not be going on any emotional journeys to confront their feelings towards their fathers.  There wouldn’t be any grand moral lessons learned in a film starring Jack Black as a teenage girl.

Then why did I enjoy it so damn much???

That’s right, I actually ended up liking this film far more than I expected to.  I think it was because I had accepted going in that this was Jumanji in name only, and was ready for an entirely different experience this time around.  And boy, did I get one.

Despite the appearance of the original board game briefly at the beginning of the film (it took all I had not to WHOOP loudly in the theater when I saw it) and a passing reference or two to Alan Parish (Robin Williams’ character from the original) there was basically nothing connecting the two films except that both happened to feature things from a jungle called Jumanji.  That was pretty much it.  Tonally, thematically, and aesthetically they are two completely different films and I found that this actually worked in Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle’s favor.  Because it knows what it wants to be and does a pretty damn good job of being that thing.

The teenage actors are serviceable, if underwhelming.  But they’re not the focus of the film anyway and don’t feature in it too heavily, so this isn’t too bad.  The Rock and Jack Black in particular seem to be having a lot of fun with their roles, as The Rock gets to try his hand at being a nerdy, insecure teenage boy while Jack Black tries his hand at an Instagram-obsessed teenage girl.  Kevin Hart basically plays Kevin Hart, if that’s what you’re into.  He was by no means bad, but the “Spunky short-guy” schtick that made him famous is on ABSOLUTE FULL display here as he plays a massive jock plugged into Kevin Hart’s manlet body and the film desperately tries to make sure you don’t forget this fact.  It was Karen Gillan that played the relative straight-man (or straight-lady) in the film, as she gets to act like an overly serious girl with little experience in anything that isn’t academia.  Despite not getting many of the punchlines, she does get one of the single best sight-gags in the film, showing off the comedy chops that she exercised so well in her run on Doctor Who.

But honestly, this is Jack Black’s film through and through.  He absolutely kills it as the hot and preppy teenage girl Bethany, to the point where every time he was on screen I was truly imagining her character literally stuck in his chubby, middle-aged body.  With the others (and Hart especially) there was a bit of disconnect at times where it was really obvious that these were just actors playing themselves, but with Black I bought that he was Bethany 100% of the film.  He also happens to get most of the best lines (in my opinion) and is an absolute riot from start to finish.  Every time he was on screen I was basically in stitches, and that’s coming from a person who’s been very critical of Black in the past.  Needless to say, he impressed me and made the movie a lot more fun than it might have been otherwise.

I suppose there is a villain in the film, but he’s a very underwhelming one and completely forgettable.  He really only exists to give the third act some stakes, but there aren’t any villains quite as menacing or as memorable as Jonathan Hyde’s hunter “Van Pelt” from the original.  Even the jungle doesn’t feel quite as villainous this time around, with some of it’s animals and characters even serving as aids to the main characters rather than foils.

This movie basically serves as a showcase for the comedic chops of the four main leads.  It’s very much a vehicle for their characters and their interactions, and the plot definitely plays second-fiddle to that.

I sincerely believe that this movie might have popped into existence as an intern asking “How crazy would it be if we made The Rock act like a nerd?” and everyone in the office sang his praises as they buckled down to figure out how to make that premise make even a modicum of sense.  “What if we connected it to Jumanji?” some millennial with good taste might have suggested, but not before some out-of-touch elderly CEO responded with, “But kids don’t play board games anymore!  Make it a vidjya game instead!” And all of his underlings were too scared to tell him that was a terrible idea, rolling their eyes and begrudgingly turning Jumanji into an equally-not-modern old gaming system that would make any kid today scream “WHAT YEAR IS IT?” and run in horror to their smartphones.

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle wasn’t a bad film, but it was no Citizen Kane.  But it also has the self-awareness to know that it isn’t trying to be, so you can’t fault it for embracing exactly what it is…a mainstream Hollywood popcorn blockbuster making you laugh and leaving you with little to think about afterwards.  It set out to make people giggle at The Rock playing a nerd, Jack Black playing a teenage girl, and Kevin Hart playing Kevin Hart…and in that respect, it definitely rolled doubles.

I give this trip back to the jungle a 7/10.

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The Last Time I Watch The Last Jedi

 

From the second I saw the opening scrawl to Star Wars: The Last Jedi, I knew we were back.  Unlike 2016’s Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, this movie had the fanfare!  And the yellow text telling me things I would forget almost immediately!  This simple addition over last year’s entry into the Star Wars films series set my mind at ease: this would undoubtedly be a Star Wars film from start to finish, not merely a story taking place in a galaxy crafted first by better movies.

Or so I thought.

Love it or hate it, 2015’s The Force Awakens was an absolute home-run for Disney and Star Wars.  The movie made over 2 billion dollars in the global box office and revitalized a franchise that many believed to be struggling a bit in the public eye.  You just can’t give audiences Jar-Jar Binks, wooden acting, campy dialogue, and the grim realities of sand (we know Anakin…it does indeed get everywhere) and still expect to keep all of the good-will accrued by the original trilogy.  You can’t simply coast off the success of a film’s predecessors forever…can you?

So instead of making a bold new Star Wars film Disney decided to play it safe and remake A New Hope.  And that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing.  A New Hope is a fantastic film, so its a prime candidate for Hollywood’s latest trends of sexy, high-budget CGI reboots.  It was universally adored despite it’s glaring similarities, because it was just so damn fun.  The new characters were fantastic and the old characters were better than ever.  The bad taste left in the mouths of viewers by the Prequel trilogy was gone: Star Wars was really, truly back.

And so we come to The Last Jedi.  Would it simply be a shot-for-shot remake of The Empire Strikes Back?  Would it take the franchise in bold new directions, progressing the story threads found in Force Awakens by J.J. Abram’s and company in satisfying ways for viewers who had been waiting two years to see the next step in the saga of Rey, Finn, and Kylo Ren?

The answer is a resounding…ehh.

(FULL SPOILERS FROM THIS POINT FORWARD! YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED)

While not as egregious about it’s “borrowing” from The Empire Strikes Back as Force Awakens from A New Hope, it’s hard not to imagine the battle on Hoth as the junkers from “Totally Not Hoth” speed across the white and red surface towards the First Order’s giant battering ram in a last-ditch effort to buy the rebels some time to escape.  The movie even has new, modified versions of the beloved AT-AT’s that they call AT-M6’s walking side-by-side as they storm the rebel base making the scene look very reminiscent of the AT-AT’s storming the base on Hoth.  But there’s a bunch of red salt this time, so it’s “Totally Not Hoth.”

But the most poignant thing they borrow from The Empire Strikes Back also tells you everything you need to know about the film.  Whereas The Empire Strikes Back has the immortal scene where Vader proclaims that he is, in fact, Luke’s father, the mystery of Rey’s parentage teased by Force Awakens is: “well, it’s nobody, really.”

Many had speculated for the last two years that Rey was a Skywalker or even somehow a Kenobi or part of some other lore-rich character’s lineage.  To have all of that speculation amount to “your parents are nobody, sorry for the misdirect” is a bit of a disappointment to rabid fans who basically live for this sort of thing.  But would a reveal that she has Skywalker blood have drawn criticisms and negative comparisons to Empire Strikes Back proclaiming that they were “copying too heavily from Empire Strikes Back?”  Either route they took, they were kind of screwed.  They were going to draw comparisons, regardless, which is why it feels like a bit of a let-down that Rey’s parentage isn’t that important, after all.  Of course, this all assumes that Kylo Ren wasn’t simply lying through his teeth, which is something he appears to be exceedingly good at.

So good, in fact, that he makes feared and menacing villain Supreme Leader Snoke into an unwilling Darth Maul cosplayer by cutting him in half.  That’s right, folks.  That big-bad scary villain from Force Awakens gets killed by his own hubris by his emotionally unstable apprentice as he’s monologuing about constantly being in the mind of the apprentice who is currently tricking him.  So uh…yeah.  That’s a thing.

It’s again disappointing, because it feels like wasted potential.  After The Return of the Jedi, we have a galaxy without an empire.  So how, in just a few decades, does a very similar entity (some would even say The First Order is too similar to the Empire) rise up and take command?  What is Snoke’s story?  Where did he come from and what are his motivations?  Who are the Knights of Ren and what is this entire story building towards?

These are questions we’ll never know the answer to.  But WOW was that scene in the throne room one hell of a ride or what?  Seeing Rey and Kylo fight the guards together was an absolute blast and one of the few times the movie got it right.  It’s just a shame that it had to come at the cost of a character shrouded in mystery, who could have been more fleshed out.  But regardless the movie’s message is very clear:  this is not Snoke’s story.  This is about Kylo Ren, and his ascent to power.

The movie does another excellent job of making you think there’s still a chance for salvation for the lost and confused Ben Solo.  The scene with his father on the bridge was the most heart-breaking moment in The Force Awakens (and likely Star Wars history) but it toyed with viewers beautifully as it gave them a glimmer of hope before snatching it away and having Ben kill his father.

The Last Jedi does something similar, and after the fight with Rey and Kylo Ren, you start to really believe that he’s turned the other cheek.  He killed his master, after all, and just helped a girl he seemingly has feelings for fight for her life against his own guards.  He also had the beautiful scene earlier in the scene where he refused to fire upon the cockpit of the ship his mother was on.  Now this is how you redeem a character!

But the beauty of the entire thing is that it’s all another gambit.  The rug gets pulled out from under the viewer much like it was in The Force Awakens, and Kylo reveals he didn’t kill Snoke to be the hero: he killed Snoke because he wants to be in charge, instead.  It was beautiful and heart-breaking, but it had to be done because the trilogy lacked a true villain after Snoke’s death.  It had to be Kylo Ren from that point forward, and his proposition to Rey to rule by his side is one made by a boy clearly in over his head, living in delusion.  It’s sad to see the sincerity in his face, as he truly believes that Rey will abandon everything she stands for and rule by his side.  When it doesn’t work out, Kylo realizes that now he is truly alone…moreso than ever before.  He doesn’t even have Snoke at this point so it will be interesting to see if he can pull himself together emotionally in order to command the army he now finds himself in control of.

Kylo Ren certainly didn’t do a good job of leading in his very first outing, when Luke gets the best of him and allows the rebels time to escape, even while lamenting that he failed his padawan.

But that was the theme of the movie, wasn’t it?  Failure.  The heroes and villains all fail time and time again, from Poe Dameron failing to follow orders to Finn and Rose ultimately failing their ABSOLUTELY UNNECESSARY PHANTOM MENACE side-quest to ride space-horses around until the day is saved.  Luke failed his padawan and it’s this failure that kickstarts the entirety of the latest trilogy.  A lot of The Last Jedi is Luke coming to terms with this failure, but all of the characters emerge from the other side more or less having learned something.  Luke learns to be at peace with himself, ultimately becoming one with the Force and transcending into a higher plane of existence.  Poe learns how to be an actual leader rather than a hot-head who gets all of his plans from the waste-bin of rejected Michael Bay ideas.  Rey learns that Kylo is beyond redemption and also gains significantly more control over her incredible force powers.  Everybody comes away on the other side, having learned something.

Except Finn and Rose.

Boy, in the annals of “Completely unnecessary side-quests to pad a film’s running time” history, this will certainly go down as a master-class in the inevitable “How-To” manual.  It was during these scenes that I found myself longing for better days filled with Jake Lloyd, podracing, and offensive stereotypical caricatures in place of alien life.  Anything but whatever this was.

Around an hour into the film, I found myself experiencing something I had only experienced briefly before in Star Wars movies: boredom.  I was more than ready for the film to get on with it, but it simply refused to do so.  We followed Finn and newcomer Rose as they traveled to a planet full of gambling war-profiteers in order to find a codebreaker in the hopes that they could then enact the ACTUAL plan that would make the ACTUAL plot of the movie move forward.  But…it just kept going.  And going.  And going.  And by the time Benicio Del Toro (presumably on amounts of Robitussin significantly higher than the Surgeon General’s recommended daily dose) gets around to stuttering his way through some hackneyed “I-can’t-believe-you-didn’t-see-that-doublecross-coming” acting, I was finding it hard to stay invested in the film.

I suppose if one was to play devil’s advocate, they’d say this part of the movie was relevant in order to introduce the idea of the children growing up under oppression and getting lost in their fantasies of the rebellion and it’s legendary heroes.  One of the closing shots of the movie is such a kid gazing towards the horizon (much as Luke once gazed towards the stars way back in A New Hope) presumably while The Last Jedi smugly says “DO YOU GET IT GUYS?  KIDS ARE THE FUTURE!  THE REBELLION LIVES ON IN THE NEXT GENERATION!”

But if this is your only defense for what feels like a sequence that takes up 99% of the movie’s run-time (in actuality though it’s probably closer to 10-15% of the movie) then I beg the question: isn’t there a simpler, more efficient route to establishing this?  Do we really have to see Finn and Rose break into the casino and get locked up, only to break out and get chased around?  I don’t have any suggestions, but then again I’m not paid to.  A wise man once said, “If you’re good at something, never do it for free” and I stand by that.  (But really though, Abrams…I’m right here.  Get in touch and I’ll get everything back on track, okay?)

The last real complaint I have towards the film concerns it’s treatment of Leia Skywalker.  When offered innumerable chances to kill off a beloved character (and more importantly, write off the wonderful Carrie Fisher after her death last year) the film bizarrely chooses not to do so.  What would have been a poignant death (floating in space, in the same sequence that shows Kylo not having the courage to do the deed himself) is scrapped in favor of…having her die off-screen between movies?  With Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy reporting in April of this past year that Carrie Fisher won’t be in the ninth named installment, it begs the question: why not just kill her off in this movie?  Imagine a world where, rather than Vice Admiral Holdo making the ultimate sacrifice, it’s Leia instead?  Wouldn’t that scene have been more powerful if after Holdo declares that she will make the sacrifice, we cut to a scene later of her on the verge of tears as she sits aboard the escape transport and we realize that the rug had been pulled out from us once again, and Leia WAS in fact going to make the ultimate sacrifice in the name of the resistance she’s fought for all of her life?  With some clever camera-work and some creepy-Leia-CGI that hopefully improved on that used in Rogue One, wouldn’t this have been immensely more powerful than a death off-screen?

Regardless, what’s done is done and the movie exists in it’s current form and will forever remain as such.  After leaving the theater, I realized that I hadn’t had nearly as much fun as I was expecting to have, and not nearly as much fun as I’d had in The Force Awakens.  Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing remains to be seen, as even the beloved Empire Strikes Back was met with equally lukewarm criticism upon release and is now widely regarded as one of the best films in the series.  Maybe this film will grow on me after repeated viewings.  But just thinking about having to sit through some of the filler again is already making me dread doing this, which I think doesn’t really bode well for this film.

Will it be the last time I really watch The Last Jedi? Not likely.  Not even by a longshot.  But this will likely be the film in the trilogy that I look forward to rewatching the least, which is a shame considering what it could have been.  It’s not a bad film.  It’s certainly not a great film either.  It’s a flawed film that has it’s moments, and as such I give it a Luke-warm (I can’t believe I didn’t make this pun when I used the word earlier) 6/10.

Thanks for reading, and stay tuned for more in-depth movie analysis!