Synopsis: A young girl is transported into a magical world of gingerbread soldiers and an army of mice.
Release Date: November 2, 2018
Thoughts: It doesn’t take much to get me to go on a Disney journey so the first preview of The Nutcracker and the Four Realms already has me packing my bags. Sure, it has a whiff of the irksome overproduction of Oz: The Great and Powerful, Alice in Wonderland and its sequel but it also has shades of The Chronicles of Narnia. The visuals in this brief teaser alone are a feast for eyes that have been on a drab buffet lately. Attempts to bring E.T.A. Hoffmann’s tale to the screen before have debuted to various degrees of success, either focusing too much on story or too much on ballet/music. Maybe new screenwriter Ashleigh Powell can make sense of it all and she’ll surely be helped by directors Lasse Hallström (The Hundred-Foot Journey) and Joe Johnston (Jurassic Park III). Starring Keira Knightley (Anna Karenina), Morgan Freeman (Lucy), Helen Mirren (Woman in Gold), and Mackenzie Foy (Interstellar), The Nutcracker and the Four Realms doesn’t arrive for another year but this overture to the main event has generated some pleasant excitement this holiday season.
Synopsis: Four teenagers discover an old video game console and are literally drawn into the game’s jungle setting becoming the adult avatars they chose. What they discover is that you don’t just play Jumanji – Jumanji plays you. They’ll have to go on the most dangerous adventure of their lives, or they’ll be stuck in the game forever
Stars: Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Karen Gillan, Jack Black, Nick Jonas, Bobby Cannavale, Rhys Darby, Morgan Turner, Ser’Darius Blain, Madison Iseman, Alex Wolff
Director: Jake Kasdan
Running Length: 119 minutes
TMMM Score: (5/10)
Review: In doing some prep work for Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle the first thing I thought was wow…the original Jumanji came out in 1995? Man, do I feel old. 22 years is a whole Disney star lifetime ago and though it had a semi-kinda-sorta sequel a decade later in 2005’s Zathura, it took all this time for a true sequel to that big-time blockbuster to materialize. While the wait was mostly worth it in the same breath I feel compelled to mention that the first movie isn’t all that great to begin with (go ahead, watch it again and tell me it hasn’t aged well in plot, word, and deed) so there wasn’t exactly a high bar the filmmakers had to navigate. The result is a pleasant but largely forgettable holiday family film that is a viable option for those wanting to avoid Jedi’s and Greatest Showmen.
While it has a few connective tissues to its predecessor, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is largely a self-contained story that finds the mischievous board game adapting for the times. Magically transforming itself into a video game cartridge, a 1996-set prologue sets up a thin backstory involving a teen that disappears after playing the game. Skip ahead twenty years and four more teens of various stock character origins (nerd, jock, pretty girl, loner girl) find themselves in detention and coming into contact with the game.
Whisked away into Jumanji’s jungle setting, the teens become the grown-up characters they selected on the game screen. That’s where some true fun emerges, though if you’ve seen the trailer the film’s already spoiled a few laughs for you. The nerd enters the game and becomes buff explorer Dr. Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson, San Andreas), the towering jock is tiny zoologist Moose Finbar (Kevin Hart, The Wedding Ringer), meek loner girl appears as commando Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan, Oculus), and the superficial pretty girl winds up as chubby (and male!) scientist Professor Sheldon “Shelly” Oberon (Jack Black, Goosebumps).
Watching the four adjust to their new bodies is amusing but aside from Oberon thrilling at being able to pee standing up, it’s not a theme that director Jake Kasdan (Sex Tape) or the four (!) screenwriters linger on for any stretch of time. Instead, the movie kicks into high gear as the four are plunged into a quest to restore a stolen jewel to its rightful place in one of Jumanji’s vine covered monuments. Stolen by a power-hungry villain (Bobby Cannavale, Blue Jasmine), the jewel gives the owner dominance over Jumanji’s creatures and landscape so it’s up to our heroes to battle the elements and themselves to save the land and get back to the real world.
Kasdan has cast the film with a pleasant group of game players more than, uh, game to play into their types. I know Johnson has perfected this big softie character before (just last year in Central Intelligence, in fact) but there’s something so winning about the way he leaves himself vulnerable, not just relying on his gigantic muscles to do the literal and figurative heavy lifting. Hart is a scream as a big man in a small body while Gillan gets laughs as an awkward girl inhabiting the visage of a lithe action star. It’s really Black’s show, though, and he milks every ‘girl stuck in a man’s body’ joke for all its worth. Normally a little of Black goes a long way but he’s the clear audience favorite from the start.
The construction of the movie is made of solid stuff but there’s too much jungle and not enough Jumanji type game-playing for my tastes. For all the problems I had with the original, at least it established some rules and forced the players to continue to roll the dice in order to finish the game. Here, the characters enter the game and find out they have three lives but aside from a few small twists here and there there’s little in the way of boundaries. I have major problems with the ending resolution but as I vow not to provide spoilers I gotta leave that one for you to find out on your own.
Before I go, let me get something trivial off my chest that’s been bugging me since they first released the marketing materials for Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle. I hate the title. Hate it. Like the movie itself, it’s too long and fussy. Something short and sweet like, oh, Jumanji: Jungle would have would have left the door open for future sequels set in a host of different locales. To top it all off, take one guess what song plays over the closing credits?
Synopsis: Inspired by the imagination of P.T. Barnum, The Greatest Showman is an original musical that celebrates the birth of show business and tells of a visionary who rose from nothing to create a spectacle that became a worldwide sensation.
Review: The Greatest Showman is a movie with a huge identity crisis. An old fashioned musical in structure and feel populated with modern style pop tunes and performances, it’s a bizarre film to experience firsthand but one I must admit I’ve had swirling around in my head ever since I saw it. Clever (or cunning) marketing has positioned this gigantic piece of cotton candy to be front and center whether you like it or not. Billboards, television advertisements, a live preview performance in the middle of last week’s A Christmas Story Live!, not to mention endless appearances by its stars on talk shows have all made The Greatest Showman impossible to miss. So with all the hub bub and howdoyado, does it wind up being something you want to fit into your busy holiday schedule?
I guess the answer is how far you like your patience to be tested. For me, the movie works in fits and spurts but the time between the material that lands starts to grow wider the longer this circus is in town. I walked out of the screening feeling like I was going to give this one an outright pan but like I mentioned before, I was seeking out specific songs from the soundtrack before the end of that day. Oscar winning songwriters Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (La La Land) have a way with a hook and more than one song has the potential to become the earworm you won’t be able shake. I’ve even fallen prey; I’ve been humming the lovely power ballad “Never Enough” sung by Loren Allred (and not by actress Rebecca Ferguson who mimes the singing rather well) for days now.
As mentioned above, the film wants to have its cake and eat it too and that greed starts with the opening credits. The old 20th Century Fox logo appears but then is quickly replaced by the new one as Pasek and Paul’s opening number begins. Why the two logos? If director Michael Gracey wanted to give us a throwback musical, why not start with a bit of retro-ness and juxtapose that with his Moulin Rouge-esque filmmaking style? Or just go modern from the get-go and hit the ground running?
The story of creative entrepreneur and eventual circus ringmaster P.T. Barnum has been turned into a musical already (1980’s rarely produced but quite lovely Barnum) and at 105 minutes the movie is a sanitized Cliff Notes version of Barnum’s humble upbringing and gradual rise to legendary stardom. In fact, the second number of the movie covers several decades of his life as Barnum (Hugh Jackman, Logan) goes from being the poor boy in love with a rich girl all the way through their eventual marriage. You won’t be finished with your popcorn before Barnum and his wife (Michelle Williams, Wonderstruck) have had two kids and are struggling to make ends meet.
Through some quick thinking and creative deception, Barnum manages to secure a loan to buy a museum of stuffed oddities he eventually turns into a theater brimming with side show acts. A bearded lady, the world’s smallest man, a pink wigged trapeze artist (the lovely Zendaya, Spider-Man: Homecoming), and more are all part of the show…and they can sing to the rafters too (so can Jackman and, to a lesser extent, Williams). Barnum’s circus draws huge crowds but doesn’t help gain him access to the cultured upper crust he so desperately wants to be a part of. Even becoming partners with a society darling (Zac Efron, The Lucky One) gets him an audience with the Queen but not the respect of his fellow New Yorkers.
While in London, Barnum becomes enamored with Swedish opera singer Jenny Lind (Ferguson, The Snowman) who agrees to come to the states for a Barnum produced tour. Barnum sees it as his chance to go legit and distances himself from his original entertainers, betraying their trust along the way. Hints of desired infidelity can only go so far in a PG-rated family film but Lind doesn’t seem to have sailed across the sea just to sing her song and cash a check. By the time Barnum is arriving by elephant to his daughters ballet recital I was ready for it all to be over…and then it pretty much was.
Working with a by the numbers script from Jenny Bicks (Rio 2) and Bill Condon (Beauty and the Beast), director Gracey never lets his camera (or editor) rest for too long. It’s imitation Baz Lurhman through and through but there’s something oddly watchable about the whole endeavor. Jackman and Efron are fine song and dance men and their number is a percussive highlight, as is Keala Settle’s knockout “This is Me” which sees Pasek and Paul going for Oscar number two. Sure, overall the music largely sounds the same and a few numbers are indistinguishable from the other (I barely remember the song Williams lilts through) but there are a few winners. It’s a strange choice not to have Ferguson do any of her own singing and I think it robs the movie of some sincerity…though to be fair it’s already strange that a world famous opera singer is singing a rafter raiser in her chest voice belt mix in the first place.
So what to do about this weird blend of current sound and throwback moviemaking? It’s far from the worst thing I’ve seen this year and I find myself growing more affectionate for it even as I write this review. It’s desperation to please initially rubbed me the wrong way but the film has its heart in the right place. Would I see The Greatest Showman again? Probably. I wouldn’t run away with this circus but I wouldn’t run from it either.