MOVIE REVIEW: Jumanji: The Next Level

Finally… The Rock, has come back… to Jumanji!

Two years ago, “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” released around Christmastime with relatively little hype and plenty of critical reluctance. It proceeded to shock the world with a nearly $1 billion box office haul. Audiences everywhere fell hard for contemporary changes that the sequel to Robin Williams’ 1995 film made – primarily the fact that its characters were stuck inside of a video game and not a board game, as in the original. The film also surprised by having its four primary characters – Spencer (Alex Wolff), Bethany (Madison Iseman), Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain), and Martha (Morgan Turner) inhabit the bodies of four avatars instead of playing the games as themselves. This gender-bending, personality-conflicting experience provided for hilarious comedy and the sequel does the same.

After saving Jumanji and returning to their lives with a new bond between them, the primary foursome has now graduated high school and are dealing with new challenges. Spencer and Martha are no longer dating and he, apart from the group due to attending college away from them in New York City, is experiencing a lack of confidence. In an effort to regain what he once felt while playing as Dr. Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson), Spencer pieces together the old broken console he’d kept hidden from his friends and makes the dangerous and reckless decision to go back inside of the game alone. Eventually, his crew follows him to Jumanji in an attempt to ensure he survives and bring him home, but Spencer’s grandfather Eddie (Danny DeVito) and his former restaurant co-owner Milo (Danny Glover) are accidentally sucked in as well.

Unfortunately for the returning players, not all goes as expected and they end up inhabiting different avatars than before. This fresh take allows for new interplay to exist between the foursome of Dwayne Johnson, Jack Black, Karen Gillan, and Alex Wolff. I don’t want to spoil who ends up playing who, but both the chemistry between this group and their comedic talents shine as they portray different personalities than what you’ve seen before. It is simply a joy to watch them interact with one another, making this the kind of film you smile and laugh out loud throughout. 

The dynamic between Eddie and Milo is one of two old friends reconnecting after 15 years apart, trying to reconcile heated emotions around their different view of how their business venture ended, and it was my teenage son’s favorite part of the movie.  Whether it was the veteran comedy duo of DeVito and Glover or the hilarious way in which other actors portrayed their avatars as if they were those two, the age and physicality differences provided for fresh new comic material that was incredibly funny. Also making her first appearance in the series is Awkwafina, who continues to prove that she can do no wrong. Every scene she’s in is a treat, and the multiple characters she acts out are incredibly entertaining and hilarious.

“Jumanji: The Next Level” succeeds by once again reinventing its formula for a modern-day audience to great effect. The twist on who inhabits which avatar not only provides a wealth of humorous possibilities but some quality heartfelt moments of relationship building as well. Again the group is on an exciting adventure that takes them to interesting new locations and throughout the film, it is obvious the writers have looked to incorporate as many elements of current era action-adventure games as possible. In one sequence midway through, characters must retrieve a special item and to do so requires wall-running, jumping, and platforming that is heavily inspired by the Tomb Raider games. Later, during the film’s climax, a brilliant sequence includes characters activating unique player abilities, a full-on cinematic set-piece akin to what you’d see in the Uncharted video game series, and an awesome boss fight complete with multiple stages. There is even one moment toward the end of the film where a major action scene had me expecting giant buttons to pop up on the big screen, indicating a quick-time-event was taking place. Non-gamers may not recognize these elements being in the story, yet the film stands on its own just fine without that knowledge because it’s so much damn fun. And for those who do understand game design and can see the clever ways it is implemented in this sequel, it truly elevates “Jumanji” to “The Next Level”. 

If you go into this sequel expecting more of the same, you won’t be disappointed. This is a family-friendly adventure franchise that understands how to innovate while keeping the same creative tone that made it such a hit in the first place. Light on drama, heavy on action, with boatloads of fun and just enough emotional character development to make us care, “Jumanji: The Next Level” continues to break the Hollywood mold of disappointing reboots, remakes, and delayed sequels by providing an experience perfect for holiday enjoyment!

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Aaron White is a Seattle-based film critic and co-creator/co-host of the Feelin’ Film Podcast. He is also a member of the Seattle Film Critics Society. He writes reviews with a focus on the emotional experience he has with a film. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter to be notified when new content is posted.

MOVIE REVIEW: Crazy Rich Asians

CRAZY RICH ASIANS (2018)

2 Hours (PG-13)

Rating:


Erynne Hundley is Seattle-based writer and freelance film critic, currently writing and editing articles for Essentially Erynne. She prides herself on crafting spoiler-free film reviews that balance franchise history, stylistic approach, script interpretation, and the emotional turmoil the final piece creates. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram for article updates.

MOVIE REVIEW: Ocean’s 8

OCEAN’S 8 (2018)

1 Hour and 50 Minutes (PG-13)

There is something magnetic about this film series. The crew up of unique and attractive personalities , the detailed planning, the intricate heist, and (almost always) the twist are all elements we love to see come together in a new way. But even when they don’t have anything drastically special to offer the genre, as long as the story is good and the cast sells it, we’re willing to be entertained. For this go-around, Steven Soderbergh exits the director’s chair and passes the torch Gary Ross (The Hunger Games, Seabiscuit). Missing is the former’s saturating color palette, replaced by a brighter and crisper one that serves the New York City setting well. Remaining is the recognizable mosaic filming style that Soderbergh utilized in Ocean’s 11-13, replicated by Ross to great effect.

Story-wise, Ocean’s 8 is fairly simple. Debbie Ocean (Sandra Bullock), estranged sister of series protagonist Danny Ocean, is being released from prison and seeking to assemble a crew for a major heist. Having spent her entire sentence planning the detailed job, she wants no part of her brother’s advice to move on from the criminal life and wastes no time in reuniting with longtime friend and partner in crime Lou (Cate Blanchett). From there the film follows a familiar structure as Debbie finds the players necessary to pull off stealing a $150 million necklace during the annual star-studded Met Gala. For this job, Debbie wants an all-girl squad, because in her opinion “A him gets noticed, a her gets ignored.” The crew includes the usual roles required: Nine Ball (Rhianna) the hacker, Amita (Mindy Kaling) the jewelry expert, Tammy (Sarah Paulson) the suburban mom and fence, Constance (Awkwafina) the quick-handed thief, and Rose (Helena Bonham-Carter) the fashion designer, whose job is to ensure that superstar actress Daphne Kluger (Anne Hathaway) is wearing the diamonds the crew intends to steal. There is quite a bit of the film spent on the planning phase of the heist and it is quite enjoyable learning about the various members of the team and their unique talents and personalities. Understandably, they cannot all have top billing and those actresses not named Sandra, Cate, or Anne are truly supporting characters. They are given just enough development, but don’t expect deeply personal backstories and character arcs. All of the cast members fill their roles fantastically, though, with Awkwafina’s humor and Rhianna’s snarky intelligence standing out.

Debbie, however, is definitely in this for more than just the money. In a sense, the film touches on the very real problem many criminals face. When it’s time to come back to society the only thing they know is what put them behind bars in the first place. If that’s what your good at, and your entire family history involves said criminal activity, why would you do anything else? And she is good at this. Very good. The plan is very cool and includes some modern tech like 3D printing. Many things that happen (including a late third act surprise) require a sense of disbelief because if one thing goes wrong, it all falls apart. But in a way these heist films are like superhero stories – doing the impossible is part of the appeal.

One of the best parts of the Ocean’s series has always been seeing bonafide movie stars come together and exist in this somewhat meta universe where celebrity cameos are a common thing. Sandra Bullock is great as Debbie and Blanchett is her usual perfect self. The chemistry between these two is especially good and their relationship is probably one of the things I would have enjoyed spending more time developing. The real stunner of the cast, though, is Anne Hathaway. Her silly charm is just adorable to behold and she provides plenty of laughs as she steals every scene she is in. The guys that feature in the film are fine and serve their purpose, too, but neither Richard Armitage or James Corden do anything memorable. This is about the ladies, of course, and it’s presented in a way that is both respectful of the films that came before and freshly empowering as a thing all its own.

VERDICT

For me, Ocean’s 8 is likely to be the film in the series that I revisit the most. It’s fast fun from start to finish with great humor, strong cast chemistry, amazing costume design, and an exciting heist. It doesn’t offer the depth of relationships present in some of the other films or the most difficult heist, but it never stops being entertaining and does not try to force becoming something that isn’t a natural fit. If this is the start of a new trilogy, I’m absolutely in favor of it, and can’t wait to see what Debbie Ocean and her crazy crew cook up next.

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Aaron White is a Seattle-based film critic and co-creator/co-host of the Feelin’ Film Podcast. He is also a member of the Seattle Film Critics Society. He writes reviews with a focus on the emotional experience he has with a film. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter to be notified when new content is posted.