Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle

Cast: Dwayne Johnson, Jack Black, Kevin Hart, Karen Gillan, Nick Jonas, Bobby Cannavale

Director: Jake Kasdan

Writers: Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers, Scott Rosenberg, Jeff Pinkner


It’s been years since I’ve watched the original 1995 Jumanji with Robin Williams, but I remember it well enough. It was a fun movie with an original concept and in the years since I never felt like it warranted a sequel. What’s interesting about this new movie though is that it isn’t clear whether it is a sequel, a remake, a reboot, or whatever else Hollywood is making these days. You could watch this film and never know that there was another movie released two decades prior. I’m not even sure if the film was originally conceived as a Jumanji sequel; I would have no trouble imagining a scenario where one of the screenwriters envisioned a movie about teenagers getting sucked into a video game, upon which someone at the studio, realising they owned the rights to Jumanji, attached the name to the property so that they might profit from Hollywood’s obsession with recognised brands. Maybe that isn’t the case at all, but what impressed about this Jumanji sequel/remake/reboot was how well it stood on its own two feet.

The movie starts off in a high school where nerdy gamer Spencer Gilpin (Alex Wolff), football jock Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain), introverted teen Martha Kaply (Morgan Turner), and Queen Bee Bethany Walker (Madison Iseman), all end up in detention together. In the middle of the mess they must sort out they find a dusty 90s video game console with a cartridge for a Jumanji game attached. They decide to have a quick go, pick their characters, and are then suddenly sucked into the game. They find themselves in a virtual jungle where they have taken the forms of their avatars. Spencer is now the tough and muscular Dr. Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson), Fridge is the short and feeble Franklin ‘Mouse’ Finbar (Kevin Hart), Martha is the athletic and beautiful Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan) and Bethany is the male, overweight, middle-aged Shelly Oberon (Jack Black). Realising they have been transported into the video game and that the most likely way out is to complete all the levels, they set out to obtain a stolen jewel called the Jaguar’s Eye and return it to its rightful place before the evil Russel Van Pelt (Bobby Cannavale) can get his hands on it.

The body-switching trope of having these Hollywood stars play these teenagers is one that could have gotten old rather quickly if not for the commitment each star gives their role and the movie’s understanding of their character’s anxieties and insecurities. As far as teenage characters go, these ones are not as fleshed out as those in The Breakfast Club (or Power Rangers to give a more recent example) but they suffice for what is after all meant to be a fun action/adventure blockbuster. Dwayne Johnson playing a scrawny, nerdy guy who cannot believe that he now has The Rock’s body works very well, as does casting a great physical comedy actor like Jack Black as a vain, smartphone-addicted teenage girl. Kevin Hart does what he does and gets some laughs and Karen Gillan has some fun as a socially awkward girl who doesn’t feel at all comfortable in a slim body with skimpy clothing, but I do wish the movie had done more to challenge the stereotypes that she is mostly perpetuating. Still, these actors all play their roles so earnestly that it never feels like just a gimmick. There were definitely a few moments there when I actually believed that Jack Black was a teenage girl.

The action/adventure aspect is, I would say, serviceable. It does what it’s meant to do well enough. The story follows a simple video-game structure where the characters have to get through certain levels to get to their objective and along the way they’re able to learn the mechanics of the game such as the strengths and weaknesses of their respective avatars and how many lives they each have. Along the way they overcome obstacles and battle faceless henchmen and a generic villain (whether this is a meta comment on video games or just a typical Hollywood trope, I cannot tell), and in between they have some individual character moments, both comic and (sort of) dramatic. The action scenes are shot well enough that you never lose sight of where everyone is or what is happening, but at the same time you never really feel like the characters are ever in that much danger. It’s a given that these characters will all make it home in the end, so any sense of drama or suspense has to stem from their individual arcs and I didn’t find enough there for me to really invest myself in their survival. Unlike Power Rangers which made a huge effort to give its characters complex personalities and tough, relatable problems, the arcs for these characters feel pretty thin and easily solved in comparison. It isn’t bad, merely serviceable.

The movie is at its best when it’s focusing on the stars and letting them have some fun. Standout moments include Black strutting around and flaunting his chubby physique as he instructs Gillan in the art of sexiness and seduction and also Johnson slipping into his expression of smouldering intensity anytime someone says “smouldering intensity”. This movie didn’t have to be great in order to cash in on the Jumanji name, but it’s clear that a lot of thought went into this film to make it more creative and surprising than it needed to be. That the movie never once resorted to cheap, empty intertextuality, by which I mean relying on the recognisable brand of the Robin Williams film as a substitute for thrills and drama, is to be applauded. This sequel/remake/reboot did its own thing and it worked out fine. The actors are all clearly giving their best and having a ball playing these characters and it is their charm and sincerity that kept me through to the end even when the concept and action started to wear thin.

★★★

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Spider-Man: Homecoming

Cast: Tom Holland, Michael Keaton, Jon Favreau, Zendaya, Donald Glover, Tyne Daly, Marisa Tomei, Robert Downey Jr.

Director: Jon Watts

Writers: Jonathan Goldstein, John Francis Daley, Jon Watts, Christopher Ford, Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers


This movie is a big deal for Marvel. For decades Spider-Man has been the comic book company’s flagship character; he is to Marvel what Superman is to DC. After two movie franchises in a little over a decade, one that became too silly for its own good and one that crashed under the weight of all the characters and stories it was trying to juggle, Sony has finally made a deal with Marvel to bring Spider-Man into the MCU. After a wonderfully received debut by Tom Holland in Civil War, Homecoming now marks the character’s third cinematic introduction a mere fifteen years after his first. It’s a bit different this time because Peter Parker is now a part of a larger world, one where the idea of the superhero has already been well established and where the world has already been threatened by gods, aliens, an artificial intelligence, sorcerers, and a guy with energy whips. Thus, to focus more on the themes of growing up and taking responsibility, Homecoming scales back on the epic fantasy and instead gives us a high school movie with superheroes.

After being drafted by Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) to fight for the Avengers, Peter Parker (Tom Holland) is told that he’s not ready yet to join the superhero team and is sent back to school to focus on his studies. In the meantime Stark encourages Peter to be more of “a friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man” and assigns Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) to look after him. Peter however struggles to balance his school life with his crime-fighting life. His best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon) keeps pestering him about his ‘Stark Internship’, his decathlon team, led by Peter’s crush Liz (Laura Harrier), is getting frustrated with his inability to commit to the upcoming championship, and even his Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) must be kept in the dark about his alter-ego. Meanwhile Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton), a salvager who was driven out of business years ago by Stark Industries, has gone into the arms trafficking business, dealing weapons based on Chitauri technology recovered from the Battle of New York in The Avengers. When he learns of Toomes’ activities, it falls onto Spider-Man to stop whatever it is he has planned.

Holland plays a much younger Peter Parker than either Maguire of Garfield ever played and his youth plays a prominent role. Spider-Man’s arc as a character has always been that he’s a young man learning to grow up and take responsibility, which is exactly what makes him so identifiable and relatable, especially to teenagers. In Homecoming his youth is emphasised in order to set him apart from the Avengers, most notably Tony Stark, who are pros at being superheroes and who understand the dangers and responsibilities of the job far better than Peter does. Although Peter is smart, talented and well intentioned, he’s also just a kid and he possesses all of the liabilities of youth. He is cocky, naïve and is in way over his head. Spider-Man has never just been a superhero fantasy, it is at its core a coming of age story and this movie embraces that by drawing inspiration from the filmography of John Hughes (which is good, but a little on the nose in one scene referencing Ferris Bueller’s Day Off). Angst, awkwardness and adolescence all come in abundance and the movie does a great job of showcasing those sides of Peter Parker.

The superhero side is also very good, but there is a slight disconnection there. The one thing I never really got from this incarnation of Spider-Man was a sense of what was driving him, a motivation. It’s hinted at in his first scene in Civil War but in this movie it is never elaborated in any meaningful way. Now, I’ve seen the other movies, I’ve read the comics, and I’ve watched some of the cartoon. I know full well what Spider-Man’s motivation is. The problem is that this movie throws us straight in without giving us some kind of foundation on which we can plant our feet. Uncle Ben, the lessons he taught Peter, and the role Peter may or may not have played in his death, we have no idea how relevant these are to this version of Spider-Man because they are never addressed. There is something of a stigma these days against superhero origin stories and not for no reason (we have after all seen two Spider-Man origin movies within ten years of each). I’m not saying that Homecoming had to be origin movie, but the crucial details of the backstory that fundamentally make Peter who he is do have to be addressed, even if it’s only in a couple of sentences. Leaving that out is bad storytelling.

Homecoming however is far from a bad movie. It is engaging, funny, thrilling and just delightful. Not only is Holland terrific as Spider-Man, he is hands down the best Peter Parker in any of the movies. His Peter is nerdy and awkward enough to make him a believable social outcast but also charming and eccentric enough to be likeable. Keaton as the Vulture is spot on and for me is easily the second best villain in the whole MCU after Loki. He is menacing, but also entertaining; villainous, but understandable. In addition, there is a twist with the villain (because there always are these days) that works incredibly well, bringing the conflict between him and Spider-Man to an entirely higher level. There are a couple of action scenes that don’t quite work, such as the climatic fight that takes place almost completely in the dark, but the ones that do work really well. As well as being his usual acrobatic self, this Spider-Man also makes effective use of the gadgets at his disposal such as his iconic web-slingers and a ton of other goodies provided by Stark’s suit. It’s not the best Spider-Man movie ever made but there is a lot to enjoy and a lot to be excited about going forward.

★★★★

The LEGO Batman Movie

Cast: (voiced by) Will Arnett, Zach Galifianakis, Michael Cera, Rosario Dawson, Ralph Fiennes

Director: Chris McKay

Writers: Seth Grahame-Smith, Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers, Jared Stern, John Whittington


It’s interesting how in the space of a single year we saw the release of two films about Batman that could not be more different. One is a mature, gritty thriller in which Batman is portrayed as a brutal, grizzled warrior with a severe attitude and lethal methods. The other is a light-hearted animated family picture where the Caped Crusader is a narcissistic jerk who secretly just wants a family. What really surprised me when I saw both was how much better the ‘kids’ movie understood the character than the ‘grown-up’ film. Batman v. Superman was an altogether more serious film but its characterisation of Batman suffered from an inconsistent tone and an overly complicated plot. LEGO Batman is streamlined and simplified and it has a clear idea about the approach it wants to take with its main character. Following the success of Nolan’s trilogy, there emerged this view that ‘dark’, ‘gritty’, and ‘serious’ equals ‘better’. To me this silly, childish, over-the-top romp is proof that this simply isn’t the case.

The film starts with a typical day in Batman’s life as he beats up bad guys, foils the Joker’s latest plot, and is celebrated by the people of Gotham City as a hero and an all-round cool guy. Afterwards he retreats from the exaltations of his adoring fans and returns to his solitary life in Wayne Manor. There, without any companions save his trusty butler Alfred, Batman spends his nights feasting on lobster and watching rom-coms, all by himself. As Bruce Wayne he attends the city’s gala where the new commissioner Barbara Gordon announces her plans to restructure the police force so that they might serve without Batman’s help. This announcement is interrupted some of Gotham’s most prominent (and also some hilariously obscure) villains, led by the Joker who then immediately surrenders. A suspicious Batman determines that his arch-rival must have some secret plot and sets out to stop him with the help of his accidentally adopted ward Dick Grayson.

As a film in its own right, LEGO Batman is an utterly enjoyable and hilarious movie. It doesn’t quite have the timeless quality of The LEGO Movie but its jokes are a laugh a minute and it can be surprisingly poignant in its quieter moments. As a Batman movie it works both as a parody and a tribute. The Batman canon has a long and colourful history and this film embraces every side of it, including the campier side of West and Schumacher that directors like Nolan and Snyder might have preferred to brush under the rug. It’s easy to forget that Bob Kane’s character started out as a children’s comic book action hero before writers like Frank Miller and Alan Moore discovered his darker side and reinvented him for a more adult audience. This film understands intuitively what works and doesn’t work about each incarnation and pokes fun at them all in equal measure. It speaks to the strength of the character that he can be subjected to this level of satire and still be treated with a deep level of sincerity, seriousness and respect, and that’s exactly what the film does in its characterisation of Batman.

The movie’s version of Batman is the same macho, egotistic Master Builder we met in The Lego Movie who believes he’s brilliant at everything and who rejects any kind of human attachment in all of its forms. Not only does he always work alone, he refuses to even acknowledge that he and the Joker are nemeses who share any kind of a special bond. His solitude is challenged both by the unintentional adoption of the wide-eyed and insufferably annoying Dick, whom we all know will later become Robin, and by the plan hatched together by the bitterly rejected Joker, desperate to prove that the unhealthily co-dependent relationship he shares with Batman is real. As Batman recklessly pushes himself further into this pursuit to stop whatever it is the Joker really has planned, it is Alfred who must try and reel him in. It is he who observes that his rejection of attachment is driven by the same fear that compels him to dress like a bat and beat up bad guys, the trauma of losing his family.

There is a lot going in The LEGO Batman Movie with jokes being fired on all fronts and a legion of characters to balance, but the movie knows when to keep things simple. Batman wanting a family is more than enough material for an enjoyable and compelling family adventure and the film uses it well. The movie is dumb and self-aware enough that it never demands to be taken too seriously. It’s a film which understands (in the same way that Deadpool understood) that superhero movies are inherently kind of silly and that’s okay. Unlike Batman v. Superman this movie isn’t ashamed to call itself a superhero movie and isn’t embarrassed of being childish, campy or light-hearted. The movie may have more in common with Adam West’s wacky adventures than it does with Nolan’s epic saga, but that doesn’t make it any less worthy of the Batman name or any less of a treat for fans. This is not the Batman movie we need; it is the Batman movie we deserve.

★★★★