Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (Kasdan; 2017)

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is a sort of sequel, but really more of a follow-up story, to the original Jumanji released in 1995.  We start this film one year after the original story of a board game which brought chaos to the town of Brantford, New Hampshire.  The mystical board game adapts to its time and transforms itself into a cartridge for a video game.  Four high school students who are given a chore to clean out some school storage areas as a punishment find this video game in 2017, and decide to give it a play as a distraction from their detention.  Each of the four students suddenly finds themself inside the video game as the character they chose to play, and they also find that they must complete the game in order to escape.

The story of Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is its weakest element as it is really nothing more than an excuse for jokes and action scenes.   The villain of the film is so weak and so personality-free that he may as well not exist.  I am not exaggerating when I say that if the villain were edited completely out of the film but nothing else was changed you wouldn’t notice a difference to the story other than it would be tighter and shorter.  As to the actual goal of taking a jewel to a gigantic statue and replacing it, it’s just a reason for the characters to not remain in one place and we never get any real sense of travel in the film, we just get to see that one scene takes place in a village, another in a chasm, and so on.

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As for the movie’s greatest strength, that would be its performances and particularly the one given by Jack Black.  The main conceit of the film allows for each of the four main actors to play characters who are against type, and while all have some fun with the idea, it’s Black that really throws himself into his character of the beautiful but insecure Instagram girl and ends up giving us a performance that is hilarious but also touching, relatable, and believable.  He impresses so much that when I was describing the film to friends afterward I kept using “she” as the pronoun I’d refer to Jack Black with.  The other actors were all funny and obviously had a good time, but none manage to give the honest performance Black did.  The Rock occasionally remembers he’s supposed to be a teenage nerd who is afraid of everything, but most of the time he’s just having a grand time mugging for the camera, which since he’s so good at it is not at all a bad thing.  Karen Gillan also largely just plays herself, but does have one fantastic scene with Jack Black in which she gets to be the shy wallflower.  Finally, Kevin Hart just acts like himself the entire time forgetting he’s actually supposed to be a high school football player.  Skill of performance aside, though, all four are very funny, charming, and have incredible chemistry which do make the movie worth watching.

The video game element of Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle also allows for some clever humor and situations.  The fact that the movie is meant to actually be a video game actually makes this a better video game film than any film actually based on an existing video game franchise as it never pretends to be anything else and can, therefore, have fun with video game tropes and cliches.  The downside to this is that once you learn what these tropes are or if you are an avid gamer it makes the film predictable as the rules of the world tend to telegraph how any given situation will be overcome.

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Final Verdict:  Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is a fantastic film for kids, and still a relatively good one for the adults who take them.  The story is as predictable as they come, but the charming cast and the comedy at the expense of video games make up for that and make for an entertaining ride.  If the kids want to see this one, take them, but if it’s your adult friends who want to take you to see Jumanji you can wait until the movie comes out for streaming services and rentals.

It (Muschietti; 2017)

There is little point to reviewing the story elements of It.  The classic Stephen King novel has been read by nearly every fan of horror and by a great many who aren’t, and there was also a television mini-series made of the novel in 1990 for those who haven’t.  If you haven’t been exposed to the story behind It already, it is either because you are a newborn (who apparently was born able to read – congratulations!) or you have never had the least bit of interest in It in the first place.  In the interest of full disclosure, though, I have to admit before getting into the review proper that my feelings on Stephen King in general and on It in particular is that he is horrible at writing plot, okay at writing character, and one of the best in the business when it comes to description and atmosphere, so take that as you will.

The story of It focuses on an evil clown named Pennywise who appears every 27 years to terrorize and kill the children of the Derry, Maine.  It’s never explained what the clown is, why it appears as a clown, why it has to do this, where the clown gets its powers, what its powers are, where its weaknesses come from, and any number of other questions.   The book’s story is about a group of children who have to confront Pennywise in their just barely pre-teen years then again 27 years later as adults.  This film deals only with the first confrontation as children, though it is more than just hinted at that we will get the film which shows them as adults later, and the children are fairly 2 dimensional characters painted with broad strokes, but at least they are very likable characters we can recognize as at least friends if not as ourselves in some way.

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What It wants to do more than world building, more than giving you strong characters, more than giving you ideas to ponder is scare you, and this it does.  It is an incredibly atmospheric film with days that never seem to be sunny, old buildings that have no business still standing, sewer tunnels, and many other dark claustrophobic locations which you can tell the art directors had a great time working on. The darkness is a tool here, and never a crutch meant to hide the action, just to lend a sense of dread of the unknown to the proceedings.  The special effects and makeup are also incredible making the lack of clarification surrounding Pennywise seem like less an annoying lack of effort on the author’s part and more a genuine use of fear of the unknown.

The best part of It, though, is the performances given by this group of child actors.  Again, what should normally be a weakness of story is used to best advantage in It as the fact that the characters are very two dimensional allow the young actors to grasp onto one or two strong character traits and run with it in their performance.  We have the stutterer who is loyal (Bill played by Jaeden Liberher), the girl outcast tomboy (Beverly played by Sophia Lillis), the foul mouthed smart ass (Richie played by Finn Wolfhard), and so on.  Normally, these broad swathes of characterization would make for dull, predictable protagonists, but here it actually works allowing the kids to really latch onto their roles and give an ensemble performance that really works.

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The R-rating of this version of It means that it is much closer to the book than the 1990 television version.  The kids in this version cuss, there is blood and gore including small children being dismembered, it even addresses some uncomfortable subject matter regarding kids beginning to come into their sexuality, though the incredibly disturbing ending of the children’s story in the book is smartly dropped and changed to something which still gets the same idea across without dealing with child porn.

Compared to the other horror films coming out over the last year or so, It lacks a lot of the intelligence we’ve been treated to.  In films like Lights Out we’ve been treated to three dimensional characters making intelligent decisions or in It Comes At Night we have our lack of knowledge coming from a point of view rather than from a writer lazily not filling in details.  It is a true 80’s throwback in that it relies entirely on atmosphere for its scares making those scares purely emotional, never thought provoking in the least.  While I definitely prefer the more intelligent horror we’ve been getting, and hope Hollywood continues on that trend, It is so well made that this throwback is more entertaining than annoying.

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Final verdict:  It is such a faithful, but fortunately not too faithful, adaptation that fans of Stephen King are almost sure to love it and his haters are quite unlikely to change their minds.  Just like the novel itself the story is silly and makes absolutely no sense under even minor scrutiny, but the kids – characters and actors alike – are so great and the atmosphere so intense that the story’s flaws can be easy to overlook.  Everything about the making of the film is of top notch quality, so whether I recommend it to you or not hinges entirely on how much you like Stephen King, and if you’re neutral I can only say that It is one of the best looking and acted horror movies to come out in a while, but It shows its age where intelligence in the story is concerned esecially when compared to Hollywood’s horror output over the last year, or so.