Review – Second Time’s a Charm (“Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle”)

You remember Jumanji, don’t you? That 1995 movie with Robin Williams about a sinister board game and a whole bunch of horribly bad CGI monkeys and elephants? Well, here’s a sequel that claims to do the original justice by turning the board game into a video game. Yeah, that’ll do it, alright!

Okay, so here’s the dealio: apparently that heinous game, Jumanji, is not only sentient, but can transform itself at will from a simple token board game into a video cartridge! Huh, how about that! Well, times are a’changin’ and so do evil games, I guess. In 1996, unlucky teenager Alex Vreeke (Mason Guccione) gets sucked into the new video version of the game and, fast-forwarding twenty years later, we meet up with four high-schoolers who are banished to detention for their various infractions.

They are: nerdy gamer and smart guy Spencer Gilpin (Alex Wolff), large football jock Anthony “Fridge” Johnson (Ser’Darius Blain), shy, but rebellious Martha Kaplan (Morgan Turner) and narcissistic Princess and social media hog Bethany Walker (Madison Iseman). While serving their time they happen upon the video game (apparently already in progress) and play. Faster than you can say Master Control Program, they are zapped into the virtual jungle world of Jumanji and inhabit the avatars of different characters; each being given three lives too boot!

Spencer becomes bulked-up and super-strong Dr. Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson), Bethany becomes map reader Professor Shelly Oberon (Jack Black), Martha is ‘man-killer’ Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillian), and Fridge is upset he’s now a short backpack toting zoologist named Franklin “Mouse” Finbar (Kevin Hart). With instruc- tions from game master Nigel (Rhys Darby), the gang learns (in this game world) the evil and twisted Russel Van Pelt (Bobby Cannavale) stole the “Jaguar’s Eye” jewel, plunging Jumanji into a land of chaos. Their mission? If they restore the jewel back where it came from they can all go home. Sounds simple, right?

But just like all video games, they face levels and a host of unbelievable obstacles and deadly animals trying to stop (or kill) them on their way. Plus Van Pelt and his army of goons are constantly on their trail. Each of our new heroes has their own strengths and weaknesses but, unlike the video game, they can’t stop bickering amongst themselves. Along the treacherous route they are saved by a grown-up Alex Vreeke (Nick Jonas), who has become pilot Seaplane McDonough.

As the mission continues, and as you’d might expect, they all get into one life-threatening adventure after another, bond together after hating each other, encounter insurmountable odds of peril, death, and face deadly CGI creatures before they finish the game. Oh, and expect that requisite happy ending at the finale with a surprise twist, naturally. With a whopping FIVE screenwriters penning the script, you’d think the movie would suffer big time in scope, content, and plot, but surprisingly… it doesn’t! Why? You can thank two things for this miracle: director Jake Kasdan (Bad Teacher, SexTape) and the cast.

Okay, yes, the script is a cookie-cutter, by-the-numbers, standard romp that, in the hands of another director, might have failed miserably, but Kasdan knows comedy and timing and tweaked the screenplay into something more than what it is. Add to this the wicked comedy hijinks of Hart, Black, and (when he’s directed well) the Rock. Let these guys off the reins and there’s magic in their ad-libbing, raising the bar of any hum-drum script with Kasdan to steer them. The “peeing scene” alone is worth the price of admission! I really would have liked to see Gillian be more animated as her avatar, but she seemed lost in her role next to the comedy kingpins.

The only down side to this very funny movie are the bookends with the teenagers. The whole beginning is boring and dull prior to the video game world (or was that the point, Jake?), causing the movie to slog before it ever gets going. The film, an homage to the original Jumanji, has quite a few Easter Eggs thrown in for all you film buffs that like that sort of thing, so listen carefully for hidden name droppings all over the place. Best of all? The CGI has REALLY improved since 1995!!

TRON (1982)
Being sucked into a video game and forced to play its games isn’t anything new, just ask the guys over at Disney when they came up with the idea back in 1982. Jeff Bridges starred in this movie that wowed audiences with, at that time, cutting-edge video graphics of live-action and quasi-CGI graphics. Oh, what we’ve learned since then!
Fired computer software engineer extraordinaire and former ENCOM employee Kevin Flynn (Bridges) owns and operates Flynn’s, a pretty successful video arcade in town, but he’s got a secret: almost all of those video games the kids are playing were HIS idea and were stolen by the ruthless Ed Dillinger (David Warner), a former colleague who is now the Senior Executive VP of ENCOM.
With Dillinger’s modifications, his MCP (Master Control Program) computer has become sentient and power-hungry, unlawfully annexing personal, corporate, and even government and military programs, assimilating them to itself to increase its own capabilities. Meanwhile, Flynn has been obsessed with getting proof that Ed stole all his gaming programs and regularly hacks into ENCOM’s computer. One night, thanks to his ex-girlfriend Lora Baines (Cindy Morgan) and her current boyfriend, Alan Bradley (Bruce Boxleitner), they sneak into ENCOM to help Kevin hack into the MCP, but the MCP strikes back, zapping Flynn with an experimental lazer that deconstructs Flynn into a computer program!
Placed on the ‘game grid’ along with other ‘programs’ (Flynn’s called a User), he’s forced to play deadly games against others, to the delight of Sark, Dillinger’s program dopple- ganger. But after Flynn escapes on a light cycle, he teams up with programs Ram (Dan Shor) and Tron (Boxleitner) in their quest to overthrow the evil MCP’s clutches. From there on it’s all pretty silly stuff with multiple chases and escapes all through the world of the inner computer landscape, flying weird contraptions called Recognizers, and getting away from Sark on a cool-looking Solar Sailer.
There’s the requisite final show-down between Tron and Sark/the MCP, not to mention Flynn being restored to his human self and getting his rightful place at ENCOM restored. Despite the absurdity of the story, it packed a wallop as far as content with it’s simplistic plot and eye-popping CG, which was super-cool looking at the time, I must admit. Writer/directer Steven Lisberger (Animalympics, Hot Pursuit) did mostly video game directing & writing, so this was a cake-walk for him, scoring him points for Disney. Sadly, he never achieved any notoriety after this movie.
Although it wasn’t a certified box office smash, it made bank and was considered ground-breaking for its content. Not too shabby. The actors were fairly good in this, when they weren’t being over-the-top, falling asleep, or trying too hard to be serious. In 2010, the long-awaited sequel Tron: Legacy opened to much fanfare, but ultimately bombed due to the lousy screenplay. Believe it or not, a third sequel is in the works. I really hope they get THIS one right!   

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