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Do critics overlook the wrong movies? The case for 'Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle'

Do critics overlook the wrong movies? The case for 'Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle'
Jack Black, left, Nick Jonas, Karen Gillan, Dwayne Johnson and Kevin Hart star in the film "Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle." (Frank Masi/Sony Pictures)

Of all the things I get asked as a film critic, I'm always tickled, though no longer surprised, by one of the most frequent questions: "How do you decide what you're reviewing?"

Buried within that question is really another. It's not just a matter of "What do you like and dislike?" but also "How much control do you exercise over what you get paid to see and write about?" Given how erratic the quality of movies can be, having some say in the matter is no small thing. In my case, I'm fortunate enough to say, my colleague Kenneth Turan and I simply sit down with the list of new releases every week and divide up the titles that look most interesting to us.

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Interesting, of course, can mean different things to different people. In critical parlance, it usually describes independent productions, foreign-language releases and documentaries — under-the-radar movies that don't arrive with a studio-caliber marketing budget and that play just a week or two in theaters, if that.

But blockbusters also can be interesting. Ryan Coogler's thrilling and magisterial "Black Panther" is proving this to a virtually unprecedented degree; more than any other recent major studio movie, Marvel-branded or otherwise, it reminds us that genre filmmaking can be staggeringly rich in visions, dreams, ideas. The recent "Star Wars: The Last Jedi" is easily the most interesting thing to emerge in ages from that overworked franchise, not least for the surprising schism it revealed among many of the critics who loved it and some of the moviegoers who didn't.

Then there are those blockbusters that, rightly or wrongly, look so thoroughly devoid of interest at the outset as to seem unworthy of comment. Consider the case of Sony's smash hit "Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle." Neither Turan nor I reviewed it when it opened Dec. 20, right in the thick of a busy awards season.

Were we wrong to pass on reviewing what would quickly become the fourth highest-grossing movie of 2017 and Sony’s second highest-grossing movie of all time?


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A visual effects-heavy, video game-themed, Guns N' Roses-referencing reboot of a creaky 22-year-old Robin Williams vehicle simply didn't look too promising in a week that also gave us "All the Money in the World," "Downsizing," "The Greatest Showman," "Happy End," "Hostiles," "Molly's Game," "Phantom Thread," "The Post" and "Pitch Perfect 3." (Yes, "Pitch Perfect 3." I know. I had high hopes.)

Were we wrong to pass on reviewing what would quickly become the fourth highest-grossing movie of 2017 and Sony's second highest-grossing movie of all time, behind only 2012's "Skyfall"? Those who conflate box-office success with quality or cultural significance might think so. As of this writing, "Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle," now going into its 14th week in theaters, has earned more than $400 million in the U.S. and might well pass the $1-billion mark worldwide in April, when it opens in Japan. (It's presently available for home viewing on digital, 4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray and DVD.)

Those figures were swimming around in my head when I finally caught up with the movie recently at my local multiplex, along with a surprisingly large crowd for a late-run weekday matinee. I have little to add to what many critics — including Katie Walsh of Tribune News Service, whose review ran in The Times — have said already, namely that "Welcome to the Jungle" was nowhere near as dreadful as they feared and that it occasionally ascended to the level of goofy, unpretentious fun.

'Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle' isn’t just a visual-effects demo reel. Director Jake Kasdan has made an actors’ picture...in computer-generated jungle drag.


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In my case, the fun was somewhat enhanced by the fact that, although the movie had already been out for weeks, I had ignored the posters and trailers and thus knew little about it going in, apart from some vague sense that it starred Dwayne Johnson and would presumably betray some connection to Chris Van Allsburg's wondrous 1981 picture book.

My ignorance made it that much more refreshing to discover that, unlike its 1995 predecessor, "Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle" isn't just another bloated visual-effects demo reel. The director, Jake Kasdan, has made an actors' picture — an actors' picture in computer-generated jungle drag, perhaps, but nonetheless an entertainment in which the personalities of its four leads are allowed to shine through and are also tweaked and subverted in slyly amusing ways.

The "Breakfast Club"-borrowing premise — four American teenagers, stuck in detention, are whisked into a Nintendo-style console game and recast as highly incongruous avatars — becomes a clever pretext for the spectacle of Johnson, Kevin Hart, Jack Black and Karen Gillan looking wildly uncomfortable, even mortified, in their own bodies. You've seen more conceptually rigorous body-swap comedies, perhaps, but it's still a hoot to watch Black reeling in horror from the sight of his own reflection, or Johnson genuinely not realizing his own strength. Gillan is delightful too as an awkward loner uneasily recast as the ensemble's resident babe, even if the script falls into the icky middle ground of both mocking and perpetuating a sexist stereotype.

As a fan of the dumb, underrated 2016 comedy "Central Intelligence," I didn't need to be sold on the idea of the lovably mismatched Johnson and Hart as a latter-day Abbott and Costello — which is to say, a reliable comic duo that can be deposited into any setting, however strange or improbable, and pretty much make it work. That's a compliment to their chemistry, but it's also a reminder of the ultimate disposability of a product like "Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle," a threadbare, slapdash entertainment that's just sturdy enough to support two hugely popular movie stars doing their thing.

In that respect, there's something sort of funny about this film's staggering success, and also something a little depressing. As Forbes' Scott Mendelson noted in a recent article, this is the first picture to earn $900-million-plus in three years that was released by a studio other than Disney or Universal, whose mega-franchises have utterly dominated the box-office landscape. "Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle" is that industry rarity, a massive crowd-pleaser that isn't a superhero movie, a "Star Wars" movie, a "Fast and the Furious" movie or a lucrative offshoot of the "Lord of the Rings" and "Harry Potter" universes.

A picture derived from a well-known but outmoded property, reworked with a modicum of freshness and executed with minimal risk or originality — that's what counts as a risky venture in the economy of present-day Hollywood. Its destiny, of course, will be to spawn a mega-franchise of its own: To no one's surprise, a "Jumanji" sequel is already in the works, with Johnson, Hart, Black and Gillan expected to return.

Will the new movie find some unexpected way to break ground, to mine something fresh and creative from a premise that already feels exhausted? Or will it just offer up a bigger, louder, lesser version of its predecessor's modest charms? Whatever happens, I'll be ready for it this time. I think.

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UPDATES:

1:33 p.m. March 20: This article was updated with information on the home-video release of "Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle."

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