Welcome to the last instalment of Film 2019, and the third of three ‘interlude’ films before I commence a shortened season of Film 2020, with a crop of single film DVDs acquired since the last batch ran out. My choice is an unusual one for me, as big, bad adventure films based on books and video games are not exactly my thing. I did see the trailer for this Jumanji sequel a couple of times in 2017, and made the same comment each time, that I would happily sit through a version of the film editted to show only every scene with Karen Gillan.
So it made some kind of backwards logic for me to choose this film and, waddaya know? I pretty much enjoyed it.
It is a video-game film, down to its roots. Four disparate players, nerdy and weird Spencer, football jock ‘Fridge’, self-centred and empty-headed blonde Bethany and cynicial, defensive loner Martha, get into trouble at school and are put into detention. They’re supposed to be cleaning out a school basement but distract themselves with an old Nineties games console and a game called Jumanji, about which they know nothing, until they find themselves sucked into the game and playing their avatars. There is a curse on the land and they have to a) find the Jaguar’s Eye, a massive emerald, and b) restore it to the eye of the sacred Jaguar. It’s a video game, alright.
What makes the film actually enjoyable is its self-awareness, and the willingness of the principal cast to play against their types, most notably the refreshingly ego-free performance of Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson – tall, shaven-headed, has muscles on his muscles – as Spencer, under the name of Dr Smolder Bravestone. ‘Fridge’ becomes the noticably short Mouse Finbar (originally misread as Moose), played by Kevin Hart, becoming Bravestone’s sidekick and bagman. Martha gets to be Karen Gillan, red hair, cropped halter top, tight and short shorts and knee-length boots (you’re starting to see why I said what I did about the editted version, aren’t you?), destroyer of men and expert dance-fighter. Bethany draws the shortest of straws, coming out as cartographer Shelly Oberon. Unfortunately for her, Shelly is short for Sheldon: she’s a middle-aged, bearded, fat little bugger and she’s also Jack Black.
There’s actually nothing that’s particularly original about the film. You know which way its going to go, and I don’t just mean the video-game/CGI fun. There’s only two games to play and these are the playing against type between the avatars and their teenage selves, and the eventual transformation of the flawed teenagers as they progress, learn to work as a team and start to draw aspects of their avatars into themselves.
Spencer has always been into Martha (despite the post-grunge way she dresses herself, it’s easy to see that Morgan Turner is close to being a bit of a babe already, as well as possessing an intelligence second only to Spencer, and an independence of thought), and she’s always been into him. It’s a measure of the film’s intelligent approach to keeping everything offbeat that their kiss as Bravestone and Ruby is horribly awkward and embarrassing whereas their kiss as Spencer and Martha is simple, instinctive and looks like a helluva lot of fun!
Fridge is the only one to resist being his avatar, for understandable reasons given the physical discrepancy between the two, but knuckles down when the game logic – or the need to get out and be restored – demands it. But naturally, the greatest contrast is Bethany as a man. Jack Black, without ever descending to a falsetto, uses a softer, higher register to his voice, reflecting Bethany’s femininity, but hers is the longest and most affecting change throughout the game. From her initial, self-entitled, dismissive mode, which shows her as a monster of ignorance as to the existence of others, without the slightest weepiness or self-loathing, Black brings Bethany through to being a genuine likeable human being, whose togetherness with her game friends carries over into real-life.
There is a strongly sentimental element to the film,. There’s a short prologue in 1996, in which the game box (from the original film) is found by a jogger on the beach and passed to his son, who disdains it until it turns into the video game that our quartet will discover twenty-one years later. In 2017, the quartet know his home as the Freak House and Alex Vreeke as the boy whio disappeared. A long way into the film, he turns up as the fifth player, with one life left, believing himself to have been trapped for two months.
Getting Alex home becomes a priority for the group higher than completing the game: the two things are the same but one is completing a game and the other is serious, and the film refuses to point out that in taking their responsibility to Alex to heart, the players have completed their transformation.
And yes, they win, and yes, they’re returned to the basement in 2017, except that Alex doesn’t make it, and we see the group continuing IRL. And then the film hits us with its whammy, which may be obvious but which is still genuinely affecting. The Freak House is no longer neglected, but well-maintained, and clearly both loved and lived-in. A car draws up, two kids get out and jump on their grandfather. The driver is Alex, an adult. He sees the four teens and understands who they are. He went back to 1996. In gratitude for the ‘girl’ who saved his life, he named his daughter Bethany.
Yet even this sentimental slop is quickly undercut as Fridge, with the onsent of the gang, drops a bowling ball on the console. Nobody gonna get sucked into this sucker again! Until this month’s sequel starring the same cast. I may have to go and watch that.
Seriously though, the film is not unflawed. The prelude, introducing us to spencer, Fridge, Bethany and Martha, is overlong. On the other hand, the game scenery is gorgeous, all mountains and deep valleys, right up my alley. But it attempts and mostly succeeds at keeping a balance betwen the straight context and the comic dislocation, without toppling over into mundane action or complete silliness, and that’s not to be sniffed at. It’s worth watching for more than Karen Gillan, I have to admit.