Film of the week: Johnson, Black and Hart still a winning combo
Hilarious trio keep the laughs coming thick and fast in this slick adventure sequel, says Paul Whitington
In the 1990s Robin Williams made a lot of dodgy movies, and Jumanji was among the strangest. In it, he played a young man who almost loses his mind after getting pulled into a jungle-themed board game where he stays trapped for 26 years, worried constantly by outsize wildlife until a group of intrepid kids follow him in and save him.
It was a mess, the great US critic Roger Ebert decided, with dodgy effects and "few redeeming features", but it did pretty well at the box office, well enough in fact to spawn a TV spin-off, and an anaemic movie sequel.
It would have been hard to pick a 90s film less likely to spawn a remake, but two years ago, Sony released Jumanji: Welcome To The Jungle, a big budget rehash starring Dwayne Johnson. One expected the worst, but it was actually a snappy family adventure that used a witty script and slick special effects to greatly improve on the original. And by substituting the board game with a clapped out 90s video game, it made the journey to Jumanji slightly more plausible.
Alex Woolf played nerdy teenager Spencer, who gets sent to detention after he's caught ghosting suspiciously competent history essays for football star Fridge (Ser'Darius Blain). When they're joined in the detention room by school beauty Bethany (Madison Iseman) and a bookish girl called Martha (Morgan Turner), they find an old 90s computer console and get sucked into Jumanji. They all have avatars, which give them special powers, but they quickly discover that life in Jumanji is no walk in the park, because on their wrists are three tattooed bars: every time they're killed, they lose a life, and if they lose all three, they're dead for real.
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Much of Jumanji: Welcome To The Jungle's charm came from the kids' discomfort in their avatar bodies: nerdy Spencer had to get used to being the muscle-bound adventurer Dr Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson), Martha was alarmed to discover herself inside the gorgeous body of martial arts expert Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan), and poor Bethany's avatar gave us the hilarious treat of watching Jack Black being a teenage prom queen.
The title of this sequel might suggest an upping of the ante, but in fact Jumanji: The Next Level trades safely on the success of its predecessor, introducing a few new characters, but essentially sticking to a successful formula. Spencer and Martha have been dating, but when Spencer wrongly decides she's lost interest in him, he decides to venture back into Jumanji alone. When Fridge, Bethany and Martha go to his house to look for him, they realise what's happened, plug in the game and go after him, but inadvertently drag Spencer's grouchy grandfather Eddie (Danny DeVito), and Eddie's friend Milo (Danny Glover) along with them.
Now Eddie is the heroic Smolder Bravestone, and the old man's hotted-headed impetuousness soon makes him a liability, while Milo's verbosity proves problematic any time his zoologist avatar Mouse Finbar (Kevin Hart) is asked to assess the threat posed by rapidly advancing animals.
Their task this time is to find Spencer and get him out, but matters are complicated by the machinations of Jurgen The Brutal (Rory McCann), a large and spectacularly unpleasant mountain warlord who wishes to lay waste to all Jumanji. But the adventurers' cause is helped by the fact they've found a way to change avatars to better capitalise on their users' strengths.
Basically, this results in a string of mildly amusing Danny DeVito impressions. Dwayne Johnson tries hardest, but Awkwafina's is the best - in fact, I think she does DeVito better than DeVito does. The film's set-up requires non-stop action and lots of jokes - any dull lulls and the ship would sink. Jake Kasdan, who also directed Welcome To The Jungle, does a fine job of keeping things moving; his father Lawrence wrote Raiders Of The Lost Ark, and there's more than a touch of Indiana Jones swagger to this whole enterprise.
The special effects are very strong, particularly a sequence involving a marauding band of giant ostriches, and a climactic battle on a metal airship. But it's the jokes that make these films work, and Hart slows down his schtick nicely to accommodate the soothing rhythms of Glover. As we've said before, Johnson is very comfortable doing comedy, and while Black is underused, we do get to see him become a giddy teenage girl before the end. It's slick and slight, but charming enough to get away with it, and you can be pretty sure a Jumanji 3 is already being plotted.
Jumanji: The Next Level (12A, 123mins) - 3 stars
Films coming soon...
Star Wars: The Rise Of Skywalker (Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, John Boyega, Oscar Issac, Ian McDiarmid, Billy Dee Williams).
At the Movies: Your guide to all the week’s new releases
Citizen K (15A, 128mins) - 3 stars
Alex Gibney’s profile of exiled oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky gives a fascinating insight into the social and moral collapse that followed the fall of communism in Russia, but goes way too easy on its arrogant, charismatic subject. Through the 1990s, Khodorkovsky made an absolute fortune through banking and oil, but he then fell foul of the touchy Vladimir Putin, and spent 10 years in Siberia on trumped-up charges. Now he’s free, living in London, and apparently committed to democracy and regime change back home. But he’s no Thomas Jefferson and Gibney lets him off lightly.
Beanpole (No Cert, IFI, 137mins) - 5 stars
World War II was won not on the beaches of Normandy, but at Stalingrad: Russia struck the decisive blow against the Third Reich, but also paid the highest price, losing more lives than all other combatants combined. The human cost of all this suffering is brilliantly explored in Kantemir Balagov’s drama set in Leningrad in 1945. Iya (Viktoria Miroshnichenko) works as a nurse at a military hospital, cheerfully tending to the wounded and saving scraps of food for her little boy, Pasha. But Pasha is not her child, and a close bond with fellow combat veteran Masha will be severely tested by tragedy. A powerful, original film.
The Kingmaker (No Cert, IFI, 101mins) - 4 stars
Imelda Marcos turned 90 this summer, but is still as absurdly grandiose as ever. Laura Greenfield’s film initially seems to take an almost kindly view of Philippino dictator Ferdinand Marcos’ moll, who enjoyed the fruits of her late husband’s corrupt and brutal reign, encouraged his worst excesses and still resides in mini-palaces dotted with Picassos and Michelangelos. But Greenfield cleverly lets her talk, hoping she’ll relax and reveal her true nature. She duly obliges. Meanwhile, her offspring are attempting to take power once again, including her aptly named son BongBong, who wants to be president. The nerve of these people.