Movie Review ~ Jumanji: The Next Level


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A team of friends return to Jumanji to rescue one of their own but discover that nothing is as they expect. The players need to brave parts unknown, from arid deserts to snowy mountains, in order to escape the world’s most dangerous game.

Stars: Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Karen Gillan, Jack Black, Nick Jonas, Danny DeVito, Danny Glover

Director: Jake Kasdan

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 123 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review: Seeing movies at advanced screenings is a huge benefit to doing what I do but it often presents a false impression of how a real audience will react to a movie.  Many times, the crowds that gather for these early showings have waited in line for hours and are experienced at snagging seats for every movie no matter the content or genre.  As long as it’s free, it’s worth seeing and that isn’t always the case for families that have to consider the cost to entertainment benefits of packing the kids into the car and taking them to the movies where prices are high and concessions are tempting.  What I could easily write off as trivial piddle because I’m seeing it for free and have another movie to get to tomorrow could be the one film outing of the holiday season for a household.  So trust me when I say I take this seriously.

Though I had my finicky issues with 2017’s Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, I still was able to recognize the enormous appeal of its stars and setting, a feeling that obviously was shared by the movie-going public who came out to support it en masse.  Opening strong but then showing surprising longevity over the ensuing weeks, the semi-sequel to the 1996 Robin Williams film was a bona fide hit that didn’t rely solely on the cast or an existing franchise to sell it.  It was an entertaining adventure that was a safe choice for the holidays and managed to outlast a Star Wars sequel (The Last Jedi) and a big movie musical (The Greatest Showman).  Two years later, a third movie has arrived a week before the release of another Star Wars film (The Rise of Skywalker) and a highly anticipated adaptation of a Broadway show (CATS)…is lighting going to strike again for Jumanji: The Next Level and its key players?

It’s been a year since four high schoolers serving detention entered a video game version of Jumanji that saw them take on different role playing avatars to humorous results.  Saving the day and exiting the playing ground as friends, they’ve gone their separate ways but have decided to reunite during the holidays.  Staying with his mom for the week and sharing a bedroom with his grandfather Eddie (Danny DeVito, Dumbo) recuperating from hip surgery, Spencer (Alex Wolff, Semper Fi)  can’t seem to find the same confidence he felt when he was in Jumanji as Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson, Rampage) and takes a late-night opportunity to go back into the game.

Looking for Spencer when he doesn’t show up for their scheduled reunion, the three other friends (Morgan Turner, Ser’Darius Blain, and Madison Iseman) figure out where he has likely gone but before they can make a plan to save him they are sucked back into the game, along with Eddie and Eddie’s former business partner Milo (Danny Glover, The Dead Don’t Die).  All is not well when they return though because while the familiar avatars have stayed the same, the game has changed and, as the title indicates, there is another level to play if they want to make it out alive.  Teaming up with fresh characters, re-discovering old alliances, traveling to new worlds, and battling stronger enemies, the group will have to work together in order to retrieve a precious jewel that holds the key to sustaining the life of Jumanji.

The previous film was working with a script from at least four screenwriters and felt bogged down in a mass of ideas and input.  You could tell it had gone through the franchise factory to ensure it was perfected in order to leave room for future installments and, as I predicted at the end of my review of the original this new film allows our adventurers to explore different worlds outside of the jungle setting.  This keeps the movie from becoming too familiar, even if the entire endeavor is a basic rehash of the original, albeit with bigger effects and a few more characters within the game thrown in.  Is it a better movie?  I don’t know.  It feels about on par with what’s come before and it doesn’t stray too much from what everyone loved from the preceding film.  It brings back nearly everyone, including Nick Jonas (Midway) and that helps it achieve some consistency.

Director Jake Kasdan (Sex Tape) gathers the gang together again and largely lets them loose to do their shtick with little restraint.  This works for the most part in the physical scenes but for the passages that rely on comedic timing, some red flags popped up for me.  I’m not so sure how much I loved hearing Johnson (being “played” by DeVito) yammering through a stereotypical Brooklyn vernacular and I definitely didn’t care for Jack Black (The House with a Clock in Its Walls) affecting a problematic ethnic dialect when he was supposedly being played by a black teenager.  Black was already skating on some tepid ice with his wispy valley girl tra-la-la-ing and furthering some dated speech patterns made me squirm a bit.

If Johnson was the winning star of the first film, the bulk of the heavy lifting here is shifted to Kevin Hart (The Upside) and Karen Gillan (Oculus) who get some nice moments in as the zoologist and butt-kicker in the group.  The wealth is evenly distributed among the four but I felt Hart and Gillan were afforded some of the movies best sequences.  Strangely, the previews and marketing materials have failed to mention the presence of a new character played by a star on the rise and if the studio is being cagey about it, I’ll keep their identity a secret as well.  All I’ll say is this actor is making the awards rounds this season and perhaps they want to downplay their participation in a silly movie for fear their more serious work would be seen in a different light – which makes sense because what they’re doing is painting with some fairly broad strokes. Another secret I’ll keep is the name of an actor making an appearance somewhere in the movie that I recognized from the 1996 film.  At first, I wondered why this person would be cast who already had an association with this property, only to find out later they have the same character name in both movies.  A coincidence?  Time will tell.

Clocking in at 129 minutes, this felt longer than it had to be.  I was getting fairly shifty in my seat before this was even half over and I’m not sure if small children would feel the same way.  I would have liked to see a bit more adventure included in this adventure story and not just impressive CGI created worlds and effects.  There’s a nifty (and scary) high-wire pursuit by a horde of mandrills and a sequence near the end featuring a player eluding poison darts was more in line with what I wanted but there isn’t much room for that when so many other stars are mugging for time.  With a foundation already laid for a third installment, even if this doesn’t exactly represent a level up in overall quality at least there’s been some thought put into the design of this new playing field.

Movie Review ~ Dumbo (2019)


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A young elephant, whose oversized ears enable him to fly, helps save a struggling circus, but when the circus plans a new venture, Dumbo and his friends discover dark secrets beneath its shiny veneer.

Stars: Colin Farrell, Nico Parker, Finley Hobbins, Danny DeVito, Michael Keaton, Eva Green, Alan Arkin

Director: Tim Burton

Rated: PG

Running Length: 106 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (3/10)

Review: As the screening date for the live-action remake of Disney’s Dumbo was arriving I realized I hadn’t seen the original in probably two decades. Though it is classic Disney, 1941’s Dumbo is just not one that has ever made it on my rotation when it comes to revisiting the old classics. Plus, I still think I have traumatic memories of Dumbo’s Circus on the Disney Channel back in the day. So I decided to fire up the 64-minute chestnut and there were a few things that really stood out for me. One was the simplicity in the storytelling and animation – this is why movies becomes timeless because they are handled with a delicate touch that helps them transcend the years. The other thing was, slightly spoiler-y, but the dang elephant doesn’t even fly until the last five or six minutes of the movie. You remembered it differently, too, right?

Now seeing that Dumbo isn’t one of my all-time favorites I don’t have the same precious feel toward it that I would have with, say, Cinderella, The Sword in the Stone, Pinocchio, or Sleeping Beauty. So I was less up-in-arms with Disney continuing their trend of turning their animated classics into live-action films…but more concerned with the guys they hired to do it. First up was screenwriter Ehren Kruger, best known for Scream 3 and a handful of the Transformers movies. What about his credits made it seem like he’d be the best choice to tackle the tale of a baby elephant at first ostracized for his large ears before being embraced when those same ears allow him to take wing? Second potential problem was the one time can’t-miss director Tim Burton, who hasn’t had a sizable hit for years and already biffed a major Disney adaptation with his brain-numbing bloated expansion of Alice in Wonderland.

Then the first teaser appeared and it seemed like things may be going in the right direction. Showing just enough of those baby blue elephant eyes against the strains of the melancholy Oscar-nominated song Baby Mine hit audiences with the right dose nostalgia and the tide seemed to shift from uncertainty to curiosity as to how Burton would bring Dumbo and his circus adventures to life. Maybe Burton would go back to the type of fantastical creations that became his calling card in his early films before he fell into relying on a never-ending rampage of CGI world he’s been filming in for the last two decades.

Sadly, Kruger (Transformers: Age of Extinction) and Burton (Big Eyes, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, Frankenweenie, Dark Shadows) have not only run off with the circus in Dumbo but they’ve taken most everything you liked about the original with them. What they’ve given audiences (family audiences, no less) is a tale that’s too dark, scary, and frankly, boring. It also represents yet another failure by the studio to make any kind of case that these live-action remakes are somehow improving upon their source material. In fact, going all the way back to the Glenn Close led 101 Dalmatians, Disney has yet to totally perfect this formula…though 2015 lavish Cinderella came quite close.  And it’s another Burton fiasco where an entire world is created on a soundstage rather than use the types of old-school Hollywood movie-making that used to set Burton apart from his peers.  It’s all make-believe but there is no whimsy or fantasy to anything.

It’s 1919 and the Medici Bros. traveling circus has seen better days. Led by Max Medici (Danny DeVito, The Lorax), the performers are weary of another season traveling on a shoestring budget yet they are happy to see trick riding sharp shooter Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell, Saving Mr. Banks) back from the war. Holt returns to his two precocious children (Nico Parker & Finley Hobbins) to be a father figure to them after the tragic death of their mother while he was overseas. Though he lost an arm in battle, Holt is eager to engage in his old act…if Max hadn’t sold his horses and most of his possessions already. Max suggests Holt work with the elephants, and it just so happens a new one has arrived and is due to give birth any day. When the baby arrives he causes an uproar with his oversize ears…as if any of these circus clowns and carnies don’t also have faces/features only a mother could love.

How the baby elephant gets his name is one of the few clever bits Burton brings forth but too soon the kids have figured out Dumbo seems to take specific delight in flight whenever a feather is in his presence and we’re off on a very different movie. In the original film Dumbo doesn’t learn to fly until the final moments, in the 2019 version he’s soaring around the circus tent before the movie is ¼ finished. That leaves 75% of the movie for Kruger and Burton to expand Dumbo’s world and introduce new characters and, in some good news, excise those horribly racist crows.

Michael Keaton (RoboCop) positively chews his way through every green screen Burton has erected as V. A. Vandevere, the scheming sovereign of Dreamland, a permanent circus that bears a striking resemblance to Walt Disney World with it’s multiple themed lands, wildlife on display, and cleverly concocted thrill rides. His star attraction is aerialist Colette Marchant (Eva Green, Cracks) and after seeing Dumbo in the local papers Vandevere sets his sights on purchasing Medici’s circus and establishing an act between Colette and Dumbo that will pack the audiences in. When Max, Holt, and the kids find out Vandevere has set them up only to gain access to Dumbo, it’s up to them to save the elephant and expose Vandevere for his greedy selfishness.

This plot is directly from any number of family films (many released by Disney) so it offers little in the way of surprise or fulfillment. It’s hard to believe Disney executives green lit something so pedestrian, actually. Considering this is the studio that also has live-action remakes of Aladdin and The Lion King still coming in 2019…I’m worried more than ever about how those films will turn out. As for Dumbo, this is mostly disappointing because there was potential here to make something with more appeal and charm.

Aside from the CGI elephant, there’s a seriously lack of personality anywhere to be found in the movie. DeVito seems like someone wound him up with a coffee IV and let him go while Farrell (who looks more handsome in clown make-up than he has any right to) is almost completely disengaged with the action. It doesn’t help the two tykes playing his kids are not only struggling to hide their British accents, they also are incapable of pulling empathy from an audience with their pallid line readings. Green, as always, feels like she wants to do something wild with her character but is operating within a framework that doesn’t support that. There’s no depth to anyone here, least of all in their choices or actions which are wholly dictated by the screenplay not by any real passion.

If you’re looking for any hold-over moments for the original, you’ll be disappointed to know that most of the music has been replaced by Danny Elfman’s same-sounding score. There are hints at the original tunes but maybe the biggest sleight of all is the beautiful lullaby Baby Mine delivered by a ukulele strumming carnival worker as a campfire dirge to no one in particular. Admittedly, the Pink Elephants on Parade sequence has made the transition into the remake largely intact, this time as part of an impressively trippy Dreamland circus act. When all else fails, there’s Dumbo who will likely charm the pants off you and nearly made me forget how crummy the rest of Burton’s film is.

The Silver Bullet ~ Dumbo (2019)

Synopsis: From Disney and visionary director Tim Burton, the all-new grand live-action adventure expands on the beloved classic story where differences are celebrated, family is cherished and dreams take flight.

Release Date: March 29, 2019

Thoughts: I must say when I heard Disney was making a live-action version of their classic 1941 animated film Dumbo to be directed by Tim Burton I was less than thrilled. Dumbo is a family favorite and one that seemed unlikely to lend itself to the kind of success other adaptations like Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast, and The Jungle Book enjoyed.  Even more, was the dark whimsy of Burton (Dark Shadows) really the right choice to take this simple and lovely tale to the big screen?  After watching this first look at the 2019 release, I’m relaxing into the notion that this marriage of Burton’s style and Disney’s chestnut might not be so strange after all.  It looks downright charming.  Starring Colin Farrell (Saving Mr. Banks), Michael Keaton (Spider Man: Homecoming), Danny DeVito (Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax), Eva Green (Cracks) and a big-eyed CGI elephant who is destined to fly to great heights, this just jumped up a few notches on my radar.

Mid-Day Mini ~ Erin Brockovich

The Facts:

Synopsis: An unemployed single mother becomes a legal assistant and almost single-handedly brings down a California power company accused of polluting a city’s water supply.

Stars: Julia Roberts, Albert Finney, Aaron Eckhart, Marg Helgenberger

Director: Steven Soderbergh  

Rated: R

Running Length: 131 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  Though Roberts had been nominated twice before for an Oscar (for Steel Magnolias and Pretty Woman), it was her loose performance as the title character in this David vs. Goliath true life tale that finally brought her an Academy Award…and it remains some of her best work.  While Roberts gets much of the credit, you can’t forget the strong support she received from  Albert Finney (Skyfall, The Bourne Legacy) as her boss, Susannah Grant’s snappy script and Steven Soderbergh (Side Effects, Magic Mike) sitting in the director’s seat. 

Brockovich was an unemployed single mom when she fast talked her way into a job at a small law firm headed by Ed Masry.  Though she didn’t look the part and definitely didn’t talk the part, Brockovich became a valued asset to the firm as she became a champion for the case of a town affected by the deadly dumping of toxic chemicals. 

Roberts is on fire here…you can tell it’s a role she believed in and a director she had faith in…and it all comes together to be a very satisfying picture.  Some have argued that it was Roberts popularity in (and money-making for) Hollywood that helped her win but this is exactly the kind of role that the Academy is known to eat up.  And who doesn’t love a good old fashioned tale of the little guy/gal triumphing over evil?