Jumanji: The Next Level (2019)

2020 #78
Jake Kasdan | 123 mins | digital (UHD) | 2.39:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Jumanji: The Next Level

The previous Jumanji movie, Welcome to the Jungle, was officially a sequel to the 1995 original. In practice, however, that amounted to little more than a brief nod / tribute to original star Robin Williams, and maybe a few Easter eggs scattered about. The Next Level, on the other hand, is much more in the traditional “direct followup” mould.

Despite our quartet of heroes having destroyed the eponymous game at the end of the last movie, one of them rescued and repaired it, and when he goes back in (for old times’ sake or something) the others must follow to rescue him. But he’s not repaired it properly, and so his septuagenarian grandfather and his chum are sucked in too, and everyone’s inhabiting a different character. And so The Next Level plays with a lot of the same comedic ideas as its predecessor — i.e. the mismatch between real-life person and in-game persona — but mixes up who’s imitating who. Primarily, this means The Rock gets to do an impression of Danny DeVito, Kevin Hart is being Danny Glover, and Jack Black is a black American football player. Karen Gillan doesn’t immediately get to join in the fun, but the film has some tricks up its sleeve. Anyway, once in the game, they head off on an Indiana Jones-type adventure — again, much like the first movie.

For many, this repetition of ideas has been a stumbling block. “The same but slightly different” doesn’t really cut it for a sequel nowadays, when you can easily rewatch the thing it’s repeating. However, I don’t think The Next Level is actually such a slavish clone. The “mismatched identities” schtick arguably worked better the first time, when it was a shiny new gag, but the fact most of the cast get to play at being someone else keeps it at least a bit fresh. There are also several new characters in the mix, with an especially entertaining performance from Awkwafina. More importantly, the adventure itself is considerably different. In my review of Welcome to the Jungle I noted that its locales were “jungle, jungle, and jungle”. Here, we get snowy mountains, vast desert, plus towns and castles. To me, it feels like they took what worked in the first movie and polished it. It’s still fundamentally the same kind of comedy action-adventure — if you disliked the first movie, there’s no reason this should appeal to you more — but refined.

Snow wonder it's better

That said, there’s still ideas left on the table. That game malfunctioning only affects who gets zapped in and which characters they play, but what if it kept glitching throughout? It’s arguably a tricky conceit to manage — if you’re going to do it, you’ve got to integrate it; but you can’t really have our heroes winning (or losing) thanks to random mistakes. But this is why Hollywood filmmakers get paid the big bucks, right? To solve these kind of things. Do it right and the glitches could’ve added an extra zing, either to the humour or as an obstacle to winning or, ideally, both. (Also, on a slightly more personal level, I think it’s a shame they didn’t release it on 3D Blu-ray this time. It was released theatrically in 3D, so a conversion exists, but they didn’t bother to put it on disc anywhere in the world. Adventure movies like this can look great in the format, and there’s a sequence with rope bridges that could’ve been really special.)

I was surprised how much I liked Welcome to the Jungle, but I held back somewhat on the sequel because of the reactions I’d seen. As it is, I was surprised again, because I think The Next Level is an even more enjoyable adventure.

There’s now a third (aka fourth, or you could even say fifth, depending what you count) Jumanji in development, which a credit scene here teases might go off in a new direction; plus cast and crew interviews have hinted at some other intriguing additions to the mythology that spin out of this movie. There’s no guarantee it’ll be a success, of course, but, nonetheless, next time I won’t be so reticent.

4 out of 5

Jumanji: The Next Level is available on Sky Cinema and Now TV from today.

Zathura: A Space Adventure (2005)

2018 #67
Jon Favreau | 97 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

Zathura

Before Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle there was Zathura, which is sort of a sequel to Jumanji… but more of a spin-off, I guess… well, really it’s a completely unrelated movie with the exact same plot. Inspired by another book by the same author, it sees two kids (Jonah Bobo and a very baby-faced Josh Hutcherson) discover an old board game that comes to life with terrifying consequences, and the only way to make it stop is to finish the game. But this game is about space, so it’s completely different, obviously.

Unsurprisingly, it’s difficult to avoid assessing the film’s quality in comparison it to its predecessor. The thing that struck me most was it feels less consequential than Jumanji, somehow. In the previous film the stakes feel high — you worry they won’t beat the game or make it out alive. Perhaps that’s because of Robin Williams’ character getting trapped in the game at the start, which makes you believe things can go wrong. Whereas here, it just feels like crazy shit will keep happening until they finish. It may also be because you can infer ‘rules’ in Jumanji — we know monkeys are going to be mischievous, tigers might eat you, etc — whereas in Zathura, because it’s sci-fi, it’s all made up. And it feels made up as it goes along, too — because it’s not based on real life or an existing brand, we don’t know the characters, the monsters, etc.

Similarly, the characters benefit from way too much luck. The kids keep not reacting fast enough to stop or save things, but then something fortunate happens so things go their way. Maybe you could sell this as a deliberate thing — like, the game wants to be finished — but that’s not how it plays out. They just keep getting lucky, in a not-great-screenwriting way. Perhaps I’m projecting problems where there are none in these observations, but it’s just another factor towards not feeling jeopardy like I did in Jumanji. Overall, Zathura was just more… pleasant.

Play the game

That said, I had some more specific niggles. For a film that should’ve been trying to avoid accusations of being a rip-off, they invite it further by (spoiler alert!) giving one character a backstory that’s a riff on Robin Williams’ from the first movie. Zathura comes at it from a different angle, at least, but that’s a mixed blessing: it doesn’t have the same emotional effect because we only learn about it belatedly, but at least that means it isn’t ripping off Jumanji’s entire narrative structure, and also allows for a neat twist later on. There’s some time travel stuff that doesn’t wholly hang together, but then does it ever?

Equally, you can clearly tell they weren’t paying enough attention to every aspect of the screenplay: the older sister (played by a pre-fame Kristen Stewart, by-the-by) gets put in hibernation for five turns, but it takes eight turns before she wakes up. How no one noticed that is baffling — did they not think to just count it in the script? Even if they somehow missed it until post-production, all it would’ve taken is a dubbed line or two. “Five turns” sounds like a lot of gameplay to miss, so maybe they just thought “eight turns” would sound too ridiculous, but did they not think someone would spot it?!

Plot logic aside, at least the film has some great effects and design work. Jumanji has aged badly in that respect (the CGI is pretty ropey), whereas Zathura still looks great, in part because there’s actually a lot of props and models involved. The performances are pretty decent, too. Director Jon Favreau clearly has a talent for working with kids — the pair here; Mowgli in his Jungle Book; Robert Downey Jr… But in all seriousness, he gets really good performances out of these children.

Holy meteors!

Also worth noting is that the UK version was originally cut to get a PG… and remains cut, because the uncut rating wouldn’t just be a 12, it’d be a 15! That’s because of “imitable techniques”, which in this case means using an aerosol as a blowtorch to set fire to a sofa. The main thing I find interesting about this is that presumably the original cut shows the Astronaut setting fire to the sofa, whereas in the UK version it just suddenly cuts to him stood beside a sofa on fire, which is so much funnier. Hurrah for censorship, I guess.

And so we come to the score. Zathura is one of those films I find a little awkward to rate, because I did enjoy it — in some respects, more than I enjoyed Jumanji when I rewatched that recently — but it also doesn’t feel as polished and complete as its predecessor in terms of story and characters. Even as I had fun, I saw many things I felt could’ve been sharpened up. For that reason, I’ve erred towards a lower rating.

3 out of 5

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (2017)

2018 #89
Jake Kasdan | 119 mins | Blu-ray (3D) | 2.39:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle

As Avengers: Infinity War breaks almost all opening weekend records, a surprise box office champ from last year makes it to UK DVD and Blu-ray. Well, it’s not all that surprising that Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle did well at the box office — it’s the belated sequel to a successful film that has become a childhood favourite for many, and it stars one of the few current actors who’s more-or-less guaranteed to get a film good gross on his appearance alone, The Rock — but how well it did shocked many who commentate on such things. In the US, although it only opened at #2 (behind The Last Jedi in its second weekend), it climbed to #1 for its third weekend, then stayed there for four of the next five weeks. Eventually it overtook every Spider-Man movie to become Sony’s highest-grossing film ever domestically. Worldwide, it’s taken just shy of $957 million to be Sony’s second highest-grossing film of all time (behind Skyfall). That’s more than just some vague nostalgia for an old Robin Williams movie.

Set 20 years later, a group of mismatched high school kids wind up in detention and are assigned to clear out an old classroom. There they find an old games console with a single game: Jumanji. They boot it up, select their characters… and are sucked into the console, finding themselves inhabiting their avatars inside the game’s jungle world. In order to escape they must complete the game, by battling against a gang of mercenaries to return a jewel to its rightful home.

Search for the high school kid inside yourself

It’s a very different setup to the original movie, which is refreshing — it could’ve just been a rehash with modern effects (while the Williams movie still has a lot going for it, the mid-’90s CGI is definitely not one of them). That said, it’s not as innovative or inventive as the first movie. The way that brought the board game’s environment to life in the real world was a unique concept, whereas this sequel merely offers an Indiana Jones-esque jungle adventure, albeit with self-aware characters. It doesn’t even use the fact it’s supposedly a video game that much, aside from a few jokes (our heroes have ridiculous only-in-a-game abilities and weaknesses; non-player characters sometimes have looping dialogue).

Where it does work is the characters and the performances. The headline cast are excellent, playing at once their in-game characters and evoking the real world counterparts who’ve inhabited them. Much of the film’s fun comes from the juxtapositions: the most obvious is Jack Black as a self-obsessed teenage girl in the body of an overweight middle-aged man, but there’s also Dwayne Johnson as a scaredy nerd in the body of, well, The Rock; Kevin Hart as a bulky jock reduced to being a short-ass backpack carrier; and Karen Gillan as an under-confident academic girl now in the body of a sexy Lara Croft type. Well, frankly, I’m not sure how much Hart brings to the table, but Johnson and Gillan are really good (and — minor spoiler! — share what is perhaps one of the best kisses in screen history), and Black is clearly having a whale of a time. The quality of the characters quietly builds to a point where the epilogue back in the real world is surprisingly emotional.

MVPs not NPCs

Unfortunately, not everything works that well. The main thing that suffers is the villain. I suppose there has to be one, if only to provide an obstacle at the climax, but that’s also the only reason he’s there — an antagonist for the sake of it. He either needs more time investment, to make him a proper character, or, actually, less — make him even more of an uninteresting obstacle than he already is. Heck, they could’ve got some gags out of the weak plots of old video games. It’s a similar situation with world building. For example, the city they visit looks fantastic in the establishing shot, but there’s no time invested in it — it’s just a place for an action scene, clearly meant to provide visual variety from the other settings of jungle, jungle, and jungle. Maybe that’s ok, but you feel like there could be more to this world.

These issues with plot construction extend to individual gags, some of which feel like setups in need of pay-offs. For example, Hart’s character has a weakness for cake. We learn that, then he accidentally eats some cake and loses a life, but… that’s it? The scene is mildly amusing thanks to the OTT way it causes him to die, but it feels like that’s a reminder — “weaknesses matter, and cake is his” — before a proper pay-off later. But there isn’t one. I mean, how about this: not only does cake kill him, but he can’t resist it (it’s like, you know, a weakness). So in the rhino scene, instead of just dropping him, they drop a trail of cake to lure him along; then, rather than the rhinos just being distracted by him running away, he eats the cake and explodes, which takes out the rhinos. (Hire me, Hollywood!)

There is running. There is also jumping. Yep, definitely a video game.

In some respects these are all nitpicks. They don’t detract from the main fun of the film, which is the mismatch between real-world kids and their in-game avatars, and putting those characters through an action-adventure. The result is amusing and exciting, and ultimately a lot of fun, even if a bit of polish could’ve made it better. Nonetheless, I probably enjoyed it more than the original.

4 out of 5

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is released on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK today.