Tag: jake kasdan

Jumanji: The Next Level


Jumanji: The Next Level (2019)
★ / ★★★★

There is nothing next level in this sequel to the surprisingly enjoyable “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle,” the first direct follow-up of the 1995 classic, unless you count mediocrity as a positive trait. It is try-hard in just about every aspect: its humor, characterizations of already hyperbolic characters, vague references to video games, and utilization of bad CGI in order to create a semblance of thrill and excitement. I was bored by its rotten offerings; halfway through I felt embarrassed for everyone on screen and wondered which projects they refused in order to appear in this misfire of an action-comedy.

It begins with potential because there is some form of human drama. Spencer (Alex Wolff), now a college student in New York City, the nerdy kid who we assumed would thrive in a college setting back when we met him as a high school senior in the preceding picture, appears to be experiencing college blues. He returns home for the holidays and, in order to escape, chooses to go back into the game and recapture that feeling of being strong, unstoppable, special.

But instead of really honing in on this character’s psychology or state of mind, the screenplay by Jake Kasdan (who directs), Jeff Pinkner, and Scott Rosenberg, merely introduces elements why he might be feeling depressed: a recent break-up, a thankless part-time job, feeling deeply insecure from having seen Instagram posts of all the adventures his friends are having, and the like. Once Spencer gets sucked into the game, all humanity goes out the window and never seen again. Naturally, when he is found everything is all right again. The movie is over, right? Unfortunately, no.

Instead, we are introduced to a number of eccentric characters both old and new. Particularly enjoyable are Eddy, Spencer’s grandfather who is recovering from hip surgery played by the inimitable Danny DeVito, and Milo, Eddie’s former restaurant co-owner played by the scene-stealer Danny Glover. Notice that no matter how familiar or connected we are to Spencer and his friends (Morgan Turner, Madison Iseman, Ser’Darius Blain), not one of them is interesting by comparison when in a scene with the highly experienced DeVito and Glover. When the two character actors speak or simply be, our attention goes straight to them. At one point, I wondered why these young folks are required to appear in this next chapter since they are given nothing new to say or do. For easy continuity, I guess. Convenience.

And that’s the problem. This film has grown comfortable taking the easy route one too many times—whether it be the safe jokes (sometimes the exact same jokes we’ve already encountered in the previous movie which makes the expository scenes drag like no tomorrow), how characters tend to yell over one another which is often mistaken for humor, the way in which the action is presented in a chaotic and unappealing way, to the lame, surface-level nudges to video games, especially role-playing games. While understandable that the screenwriters try to strive for accessibility, it is a family picture after all, must the material be so consistently devoid of originality, creativity, and ability to take risks? This movie tastes like it was made in a factory.

You can tell that “Jumanji: The Next Level” is made too soon and too quickly. The central villain named Jurgen the Brutal (Rory McCann) is bland and the mountaintop castle he resides in is without personality. In the end, of course, our heroes must break into the castle and obtain an artifact. Anybody who has played a video game can tell you that final bosses must be challenging. In this film, it is like a walk in the park. There is no sense of danger or mortality. No one even gets wounded. When our characters’ remaining lives dwindle down to one, there is no tension at all. You know what would have been next level? To discover what happens when a character’s final life gets used up. Because the film is so safe, we never get an answer.

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle


Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (2017)
★★★ / ★★★★

Anyone who has played role-playing video games from the ‘90s is likely to be entertained by “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle,” a clever, self-aware adventure-comedy propelled by charismatic and energetic performances. Credit to the team of screenwriters for making the smart decision to depart from the beloved 1995 classic in nearly every way, from the setting of the story to the overall tone, mood, and characterization. With a twenty-year gap between the original and its sequel, it is critical for the latter to come across contemporary while remaining tethered to the spirit of its predecessor. It is a welcome evolution.

Casting directors Nicole Abellera and Jeanne McCarthy deserve a pat on the back for selecting four performers (Dwayne Johnson, Jack Black, Kevin Hart, Karen Gillan) who are more than up to the task in embodying in-game characters, or avatars, playing out-of-game characters (Alex Wolff, Madison Iseman, Ser’Darius Blain, Morgan Turner) who just so happen to be high school students, teenage baggage and all, on top of being complete opposites of how they look like. It is a winsome twist in body-switching teen archetypes.

For example, Black must play a female teen, the popular princess type who thinks the world revolves around her and her selfies. But Black’s character, the avatar, is obviously male, and one who has more on his mind than taking pretty “no filter” pictures for likes on social media. Rarely does a movie make me want to watch the outtakes because the actors seem willing to do anything for a laugh. Perhaps their near-hits or misses are pretty funny, too. Each finds a way to have fun in his or her respective role without relying on being campy or loud all the time. I enjoyed moments when the film manages to sneak up on the viewer and makes us realize how much we care that the four teens in adult bodies make it out of the game with the lessons they learned, about themselves and one another, intact.

The special and visual effects are not particularly impressive. For instance, by comparison, I find the wildlife stampede in the original “Jumanji” picture to be more visceral, exciting even though the chaos is unfolding in a suburban area. In fact, here, some set pieces look rather fake, clearly shot in a studio. Movies shot in actual jungles, particularly war films set in Vietnam and other countries by the Pacific, tend to capture the looks of vegetation and sounds in a matter-of-fact, occasionally haunting way. Here, at times plants look as though they have been purchased at a dollar store, clearly dummies, plastic.

Still, the energy of the film is so infectious, I believe most viewers will overlook such details. A shortcoming not easily ignored, however, is a lack of a great villain with strong presence. Van Pelt (Bobby Cannavale) is a recognizable name in the “Jumanji” universe, but the writers neglect to create an interesting character who has more to him than looking mean with bugs crawling all over his face. Had there been something else to the antagonist, a self-awareness perhaps, even a sense of humor, Van Pelt might have been a formidable opponent.

Because Jake Kasdan’s “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” succeeds in modernizing a brand, it is possible that a new franchise is born. Surely box office numbers will tell, but the real question is, if it does continue, would the screenwriters be able to tap into a wellspring of new ideas and put them together in such a way that is focused and relevant? Time will tell. But hopefully not another two decades will pass.