Jumanji: An Unwelcoming Movie

Studio heads must have high regards for the box office appeal of Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson and Kevin Hart to open Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle a week after the release of Star Wars: The Last Jedi. But what kept Christian Tesfaye around for the last reel was Jack Black's performance. He awards 4 out of 10 stars.

The year has come to an end. Donald Trump has not been impeached, there is little peace in the Middle East, most of Africa is still poor, the globe is too warm, the world’s population is growing too fast, and box office records are lower than expected. The last piece of information may not worry many people, but it is a worry nonetheless, at least for fans of the movies.

Do not tell this to Disney though, even if everything has not gone to plan. Its Beauty and the Beast released earlier in the year is at this point the highest grossing movie of 2017 and Star Wars: The Last Jedi, currently in theatres, is estimated to take in at least 1.6 billion dollars at the box office. To put this in perspective, the combined proceeds from these two movies is close to the total revenue the Ethiopian Tax Authority tried to collect but actually failed to for the first four months of the fiscal year.

Much like our government, Disney had its own target it wanted to meet. Other movies expected to cross the billion-dollar mark were Thor: Ragnarok, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales and the sequel to the Guardians of the Galaxy. Spider-Man: Homecoming from Sony Studios similarly underperformed. For Universal Studios, The Fate of the Furious and Despicable Me 3 both delivered the goods, even as they remained as abysmal as their prequels.

It is true that more movies this year crossed the half a billion dollar mark than ever, but that cinema attendance is falling is obvious. The movie industry, especially that of North America is trying to make up for this by increasing the price of tickets, but that will only take them far enough. Instead, a remedy would be less monotony and more novelty. Audiences are already getting tired of tip-top special effects – these they can get on video games and even lately TV shows. What instead they are not getting are unforgettable characters (which is not to mean superheroes), great plot, smart dialogue and impactful themes.

In a nutshell, what audiences are signalling is that they are tired of movies such as Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle. But that is apparently lost on Matti Cinema, Ethiopia’s sole foreign film outlet for mainstream audiences. I concur that some moments are funny, but the film could be best be described as an episode full of sequences of all the movie cliché scenes we have come to recognise. For some at the cinema, this was endearing – which is the reason I am praying for them.

Spencer, Bethany, Fridge and Martha are schoolmates who find themselves condemned to detention for various reasons. They think what better way to pass the time and get back at their teachers than to play a video game while in there. They choose the characters they want to play and press start.

Since Jumanji is a children’s story relatively familiar to most that pay attention to American pop-culture, it is apparent what takes place next. The characters are sucked into the game and not allowed to leave until they have finished the final level. What makes the film most novel from the source material, a children’s book, and the 1995 Robin Williams starring movie of the same name (without the subtitle), is that the characters themselves are transformed into video game characters.

As in Hamlet, thus, Jumanji is a story within a story, only that the secondary story is very much, if not more, fatal as the primary one. For this, the video game versions of the characters are equipped with the necessary mental and physical attributes that allow one to survive.

For one thing, all the teenagers are adults. Spencer has become an explorer called Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson), whose attributes amongst other things is, well, bravery, and has no weaknesses whatsoever. Fridge, the football jock, loses weight and height to become Mouse (Kevin Hart). He makes up for the loses with a loud and screechy voice and knowledge about zoology.

Bethany, one of the girls, has transformed into the cartographer, “map doctor” as she puts it, Shelly (Jack Black), which to her surprise is a man. The sole female video game version thus becomes Martha’s Ruby (Karen Gillan), a skinnier version of herself.

Once in Jumanji, they are tasked by a non-player character with returning a jewel an explorer called Van Pelt (Bobby Cannavale) stole, to its rightful place. They must do this without expending the three lives each of them is allowed – which is a couple more than can be said about reality.

As fun as the plot may sound, the film is hollow. I hoped it would be an analysis of people’s expectations of themselves. Or perhaps a spoof of modern gaming. Instead, the film stops short of few comic shticks and a story arch that is painfully obvious.

And had it not been for Black, it would have been a complete failure. Playing a woman trapped in a man’s body, he steals the show by appearing self-deprecating. Between Johnson’s unsuccessful turn as a teenager, and Hart’s “Hartisms” which I still fail to find funny, Black was a relief to see in a movie that is as exciting as a dead rabbit.

For most of what the film is, we have Jake Kasdan to thank. The son of Lawrence Kasdan – famous for co-writing legendary films such as The Empire Strikes Back and Raiders of the Lost Ark, and directing the brilliant neo-noir Body Heat – this is not a movie that falls far from his previous attempts at comedy. Jumanji is just as bad as Bad Teacher and Sex Tape.

At the very least Kasdan could have allowed us a minute or two of Guns N’ Roses’s Welcome to the Jungle. But even that was not to be the case. Here is to hoping that the upcoming Star Wars spinoff, Solo: A Star Wars Story, which he co-scripted with his father, fares better.


Published on Dec 30,2017 [ Vol 18 ,No 922]



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