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Film review: Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle ****

By Preston Wilder

I guess it had to happen – though did it, really? Even with the law of averages, there’s no reason why another needless reboot should be any more palatable than all the previous needless reboots. Jumanji, a 1995 kids’ film about a frankly homicidal board game, is notable mainly for some CGI wild animals that looked unconvincing even in 1995, and this 20-years-later sequel didn’t exactly scream ‘must-see’. The film (let’s be clear) isn’t some kind of subversive re-imagining; it’s exactly what it looks like, a light-hearted kids’ adventure set in a rather generic jungle world. Yet it’s also a wonderful surprise, clever, exuberant and often hilarious – even for adults.

Jumanji brought the jungle to suburban America, the sequel does the opposite. It borrows from two 80s classics, The Breakfast Club and Raiders of the Lost Ark – and asks ‘What would happen if the kids from The Breakfast Club suddenly became Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark?’. That’s the conundrum faced by four very different high-schoolers – the nerd, the jock, the princess, the swot – who find Jumanji (now a videogame rather than a board game) while in detention, choose their ‘avatars’ for a laugh, then find themselves in the game and inhabiting those very avatars.

Spencer the nerd is now Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson, running a horrified hand over his bald dome and gingerly prodding his muscles to check if they’re real. ‘Fridge’ the jock, a teenage football star, is now Kevin Hart, Johnson’s diminutive partner from Central Intelligence. Martha the swot – a serious girl who refused to do PE because it wouldn’t help her get into Princeton – is now Karen Gillan, a martial-arts expert and certified hottie in a skimpy outfit (“Why am I wearing this outfit in a jungle?” asks Martha sensibly). Best of all, Bethany the princess, first seen posing for an elaborate selfie which she then posts to Instagram with the hashtag #nofilter (I don’t pose often, she protests, “just enough to stay relevant”), is now Jack Black, an “overweight middle-aged man” with an actual penis attached to his body.

That’s the main joke, which the film milks longer and more successfully than may be thought possible (two of the four credited writers worked on Community, the funniest of recent US sitcoms). We all knew The Rock was game for anything, but watching him gaze into the distance in a display of “smouldering intensity” – one of his character’s ‘strengths’ in the videogame world – is almost as awesome as watching Black stomp his foot and place his hands on his hips in a display of teenage coquettishness. Even the throwaway jokes are smarter than expected: Bethany bemoans the loss of her phone, but admits that “all my other senses” seem to be sharper since she lost it. Gillan doing the shy teen who’s just had a crash-course in how to flirt (“Hair is everything”) is irresistible, while Hart’s permanent state of red-hot rage at the useless character he’s been landed with never gets old. How can “cake” be one of his ‘weaknesses’? Maybe it just means he has a weakness for cake, i.e. really loves it – but then he takes a small bite of cake, and explodes. Yes, explodes.

That’s the other thing to mention, viz. that our heroes have three lives in this world – which is handy, since it means they can die horribly and come right back, but also adds the spectre of mortality once they get down to their last life; add potential psychological trauma to the penis jokes and scary beasties (especially snakes), and parents should be warned that Jumanji definitely earns its ‘12’ rating. Yet it’s also uplifting in the usual way, with the kids growing more confident and learning the value of teamwork – the latter vividly illustrated when they meet another kid who was sucked into the game by himself, without any friends, and has spent 20 years being trapped in Jumanji.

Welcome to the Jungle is sweet, a case of gawky teens learning to fend for themselves (“I have to warn you,” stammers the polite nerd trapped in the body of a superman, “I think I’m a pretty strong puncher”); you could even view it as a metaphor for adolescence itself, with its amazement at physical changes. It’s clever, and consistently funny. It has Kevin Hart – having lost the all-important jewel that’s the point of the whole damn movie – cheerfully admitting “We’re in a pickle” with the nonchalance of a Victorian adventurer. It builds to the usual action climax, yet even that adds a soupcon of brain over brawn (Martha uses her character’s weakness – “venom” – to checkmate the villain). Admittedly, there’s a problem: it’s a needless Hollywood reboot of a movie that wasn’t much good in the first place. Still, I guess one of those had to work eventually.

 

DIRECTED BY Jake Kasdan

STARRING Dwayne Johnson, Karen Gillan, Kevin Hart

ACTION COMEDY

US 2017                      119 mins

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