Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (2017) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (2017)

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Four high school students, brought together in detention, find a dusty old cartridge and unfamiliar video game system.  The cartridge is Jumanji, and is about to take them on a trip they couldn't anticipate.  Jake Kasdan directs Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, with the screenplay written by Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers, Scott Rosenberg, and Jeff Pinkner, and stars Jack Black, Karen Gillan, Kevin Hart, and Dwayne Johnson.

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (just Welcome to the Jungle moving forward), for all its mediocrity as entertainment, at least serves as a valuable template for success.  It's not content to recreate the Joe Johnston's 1995 film Jumanji and serves as an example of how to take a concept in directions that are fun in theory.  Save one throwback at the beginning of Welcome to the Jungle, this Jumanji is its own beast.  Toss in some reliably entertaining character work from the likes of Jack Black, Karen Gillan, and Dwayne Johnson for near billion dollar success.

Truth be told, I was digging Welcome to the Jungle far more when the four characters destined to be replaced by superstars were existing in world outside Jumanji.  There's an uncertain edge to the teens' interactions with adults.  This results in great scenes where Martha (Morgan Turner) and Bethany (Madison Iseman) both use feminist talking points to try and get out of trouble to dubious effect with spectacular reaction shots of their adult conversation partners.  Whichever of Welcome to the Jungle's four screenwriters (Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers, Scott Rosenberg, and Jeff Pinkner) is responsible for writing those moments should take a moment out of the day to pat themselves on the back.

Even when the video game elements of Welcome to the Jungle come into play, the visuals rarely move from the same long shot of the performers in a jungle.

Unfortunately for me, Welcome to the Jungle kept going and the edge was replaced with some of the safest comedy this side of conservative comedians.  A bulk of Welcome to the Jungle's largely inoffensive and bland nature falls to Jake Kasdan's direction.  If you're not familiar with Kasdan there is nothing in Welcome to the Jungle that will inspire much research into his career.  His résumé is filled with films ranging from the aggressively mediocre (Sex Tape) to entertainments that transcend his direction through the sheer force of the personalities leading them (Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story).

I struggle to remember anything of note from Kasdan's films and I predict the same problem for Welcome to the Jungle.  The photography is so straightforward you'd think Kasdan and cinematographer Gyula Pados watched a single Kevin Smith film to adopt the "point the camera and make the performers say their lines" mindset.  Despite taking place in a video game, presumably one that's in 3D, a bulk of the action - and I'm generous when I call it action - takes place on the same visual plane.  So monotonous is this series of jungle wide shots that I struggled to find images that differed enough from one another to include in this review.  If I was evaluating Welcome to the Jungle solely as a visual experience it would rank terribly.

What pleasures there are in Welcome to the Jungle are in spite of Kasdan's direction rather than because of it.  This is the only plausible explanation for how Bobby Cannavale can be cast as the villain, with few lines, and be made to grunt menacingly under substandard light.  Wasting Cannavale is one of the few faux pas I make an extra effort to point out as the man oozes charisma in the right roles (his work in the third season of Mr. Robot one spectacular recent example).

The pleasures that do surface are largely courtesy of Mr. Black, who also provided Kasdan's previous film Sex Tape with its sole memorable moment.  Black's long been an underappreciated performer (see Bernie for one fantastic example) and throws himself into the unlikely role of teenage girl trapped in a middle-aged man's body with the kind of subtle enthusiasm that's derailed comedies with similar situations.  There's not a hint of irony or winking when Black is teaching Gillan how to seduce men.  With his sincere confidence and her awkward willingness to learn, the two transcend the boring visual template.

Same boring visuals, but Jack Black at least livens up the scene with his sincere energy.

There's less enjoyment with Johnson and Kevin Hart's chemistry, which is a shame considering how much of a success Central Intelligence was.  This detriment comes from the four screenwriters who reduce Hart's "real world" character to a watered down high energy whine à la Chris Tucker (who was already a lesser Eddie Murphy).  Johnson's fine, and I did get a few chuckles out of his inability to control when he utters his lines with handsome smolder, but Johnson doing his thing is starting to carry less weight with me since that's all that's been asked of him for over a decade.

You may note, now that we're at the end of this review, that I've barely referred to the characters by their names and opted to identify them by their performers.  Once we're in the game, all that's left is different versions of each performer's usual screen presence played to varying levels of success.  It's the sort of film where there's no challenge in watching it, and the odd chuckle wasn't enough to make me wish it kept going.  That's enough for close to a billion dollars, but not enough for me to enjoy.

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Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (2017)

Directed by Jake Kasdan.
Screenplay written by Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers, Scott Rosenberg, and Jeff Pinkner.
Starring Jack Black, Karen Gillan, Kevin Hart, and Dwayne Johnson.

Posted by Andrew

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