JUMANJI: THE NEXT LEVEL – CLEVER AND LOADS OF FUN

SHORT TAKE:

Clever latest installment in the Jumanji franchise.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Mid-teens and up because of unnecessary profanity, including blasphemy, as well as some extreme cartoon gory violence.

LONG TAKE:

Paraphrasing Benjamin Franklin the way my high school teacher did with any recalcitrant students: “Experience is a hard teacher but some will have no other.” This seems to be a thematic motto of the Jumanji franchise (and in that group I would include Zarathustra). Like a harsh fairy godmother teaching in The Wizard of Oz school of learning things, the Jumanji game seeks out unsatisfied people to grant their wishes … but makes them earn it.

The General Studies program at the Jumanji School of Insanely Hard Knocks focuses on maturity, altruism, loyalty and the priorities of friendship and family which can overcome any obstacles no matter how off-the-wall: from eagle size mosquitoes to malicious bands of monkeys, carnivorous hippopotami and lethal semi-sentient poisonous vines, bonding comes from teamwork, accepting others weaknesses, and making the best use of your own strengths to help those you love.

Excellent lessons to learn and, as Mary Poppins might have said, it helps that the sugar to make the medicine go down is wildly funny scenarios, and great actors who are very good sports and don’t mind taking pokes at their own famous reputations.

The original Jumanji and its two sequels excel beautifully in all of the above points. Zarathustra, (the step-child of the group, as it uses a similar scenario and themes but is not strictly part of the Jumanji franchise) follows in those footsteps as well.

For those not up-to-date, Jumanji is a wild game of crazy challenges: stampedes, instant localized monsoons  which fall only where you are, monster crocodiles, a homicidal big game hunter of people, malevolent monkeys — and places you IN the game. Not virtually, but in the real world. In the original Jumanji the creatures came into our reality. In the subsequent Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, the players are pulled into the game and manifest as Avatars. Spencer, a slight bookish boy with no appreciable upper body strength becomes Dwayne Johnson. Bethany, a narcissistic “Valley” girl becomes Jack Black. Martha, a girl with no inherent athletic abilities becomes Karen Gillian with preternaturally gymnastic fighting skills. And Fridge, an egotistical football player becomes the much shorter wand weaker Kevin Hart.

This latest Jumanji, Jumanji: The Next Level mixes it up, starting only a few years after the first reboot. All the original team: Fridge, Bethany and Martha have gone to college, done well and look forward to a reunion. Spencer is in a funk, and finds himself longing for the days when he was the size of Dwayne Johnson with extraordinary powers of strength and speed. The temptation gets too much and without consulting his worried friends goes back into the game.

I don’t want to tell you much more and spoil things so I will shy away from specifics. But I will say Next Level has all the humor and inventive scenarios of the original, keeps to the same themes, brings back all the familiar faces but does not just rehash the old. There are lively and justifiable (for that universe) variations which make Next Level as new and intriguing as the very first 1995 incarnation.

The acting is A level and a lot of fun. Not an enormous amount of subtlety but each of the actors do a wonderful job performing multiple characters outside of what you might think is their comfort zone. Returning are: Dwayne Johnson (burly muscle in WWE, and the likes of Scorpion King, GI Joe and Fast and Furious) who truly shines in comedies like Get Smart, The Other Guys, The Tooth Fairy and here in Next Level, where he shamelessly and hilariously makes fun of himself as Dr. Bravehouse/Eddie and Spencer. I was genuinely impressed at the enthusiasm with which he launched into characters way outside of his usual fare. Karen Gillian returns as Martha/Ruby Roundhouse as well as Fridge (you’ll see). She was most notably known before this as Matt Smith’s Dr. Who‘s companion Amy Pond and here does a marvelous job with not only multiple personalities but an authentic American accent. Kevin Hart (The Upside SEE REVIEW HERE) is delicious as Fridge and Milo. Jack Black is delightful as Bethany and Fridge. In addition there are some wonderful small role/cameos by short, growly voiced iconic comedian Danny DeVito (TV classic series Taxi, Throw Mama From the Train, Romancing the Stone, Twins) as Eddie, Danny Glover (Lethal Weapon franchise) as Milo, original Jumanji veteran Bebe Neuwirth as Eddie’s friend Nora, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle reprise Nick Jonas (memorable in Midway SEE MY REVIEW HERE) as Alex, and Awkwafina (Crazy Rich Asians SEE REVIEW HERE) as Spencer and Eddie (again – go to the movie to see what this means).

Portraying the young versions of the “real” people are Morgan Turner as Martha, Madison Iseman as Bethany,  Ser’Darius Blan as Fridge, and Alex Wolff as Spencer. Colin Hanks (Tom’s oldest son) plays grown up Alex.

The soundtrack by Henry Jackman channels Lawrence of Arabia and Star Wars in very clever and appropriate moments, as if unable to resist the retro and multi personality motifs that the actors get to play.

Jake Kasden, writer/director (Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle) who is of significant lineage (son of the famous writer/director Lawrence Kasden who brought us both Indian Jones, many of the Star Wars reboots, and The Big Chill), with cinematographer Gyula Pados, and the other writers Jeff Pinkner and  Scott Rosenberg, do a terrific job creating multiple extreme scenarios. I was especially impressed with the realism in a ridiculously harrowing one with …let’s just say geometry was important.

I would love to recommend this for all ages. And while there is no sexuality the writers unwisely decided to “enhance” a couple of the characters’ personalities with a smattering of profane and even blasphemous language: (*cough cough* Danny DeVito, Kevin Hart, Jack Black). Therefore I would recommended only to mid-teens and up and then only those who will have the sense not to parrot-repeat things they should not. That is a shame because it is the only limiting proviso to this otherwise charming film.

JUMANJI!!!!

GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY 2 – STRANGEST HOMESCHOOLING FAMILY… EVER

Every homeschooling family is unique. Some raise farm animals. Some attend symphony concerts. Some are heavily into sports. And one —– saves the galaxy. And most important to the homeschool family is — the father. I’ve said this before in other blogs, but I am happy to have the opportunity to say it again: A father (or father figure) in a family is irreplaceable and essential to a child’s development unless you want that child SERIOUSLY screwed up. No movie of recent history exemplifies this point more than the most recent Guardians of the Galaxy installment. I get that some families must persevere without a father – BUT given the vital role a father has in the home it is imperative that fatherless homes finds a wholesome father figure role model – brother, grandfather, priest, friend. Someone who can be turned to for counsel and, when needs be, protection.

While Guardians of the Galaxy 2 is one of the most entertaining movies I have seen in a long time, there are serious underlying themes.

Please understand that the analysis below of the rather sobering themes explored in Guardians is not meant to imply that this is not a fun, funny, uplifting romp of a movie. I know the expression “feel good film” is more overused than “blockbuster” but you really WILL feel good when you come out. The movie is comedic, warm, and friendly, though a BIT too mature for the under 13 crowd. The violence is extensive but cartoonish and richly deserved by the recipients. No one takes themselves too seriously and tongue is planted firmly in cheek. I mean, how can you miss it when one of the characters is named EGO.

BEYOND HERE BE MASSIVE SPOILERS!!!!!!!!!!! FOR BOTH GUARDIANS!!!

I hate giving spoilers, so if you haven’t seen either of the Guardians movies wait to read this blog. But in order to do justice to the analysis of Guardians I have to get into spoiler-detail territory. If you continue – well, you’ve been warned. In addition, some of my comments rely on some short hand which only those who have seen the films will fully get.

On the homeschooling issue – it would have been easy to justify placing Baby Groot (YES! Still voiced by Vin Diesel) in some kind of protective custody environment. The hazards routinely taken by Baby Groot’s family of risk taking super hero parent/sibling models would have given the willies to the Flying Wallendas. Instead they work together to provide for the needs of Baby Groot, to nurture, protect and teach him all the while carrying on with killing scary critters and taking on fleets of homicidal bad guys. No one will watch your child the way you do. Your child is safer with you in a hazardous situation than they are with paid strangers in a “safe” environment.

And integral to the successful homeschooling home, ideally, is the father.

The importance of a good father in the healthy upbringing of a child is featured in this Guardians sequel both for daughters as well as sons. Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) is “kidnapped” (and I’ll explain the quotes shortly) by Yondu (Michael Rooker) instead of returned to Peter’s appropriately named father, Ego, as Yondu had been paid to do. And so Peter was raised without his biological father. Ego, (Kurt Russell) presents himself to Peter, first, as a loving father, happily and finally reunited with the son he was denied by Yondu. In fact Ego has deliberately “seeded” himself both physically into the various planets he has visited as well as bred with many species across the galaxy in order to come up with the perfect child with which he can eliminate all life forms other than himself. He justifies this because he, himself, as far as he could tell, just “popped” into existence and has been traveling around, aimlessly, for millions of years – much like V-Ger in the first Star Trek movie, gaining a lot of knowledge but, it seems, very little wisdom. And with almost limitless power but without the guidance of a good father, Ego has become the embodiment of his name.

After thousands, or perhaps even millions, of attempts, Peter is Ego’s first progeny who is able to share Ego’s abilities. The others were killed in the trial process or murdered and discarded – we are never made clear on this creepy point. And – to make Ego even more evil – in order to stay true to his own perverted course, to sever all ties to anything which might distract him, he murders Peter’s mother by deliberately placing the tumor in her brain that kills her.

So – this heartless, selfish, sensualist alien playboys himself around the universe, wooing women in order to bed them, impregnating them, then abandons them and abuses the children. If this sounds more familiar than it should it’s because it is the repetitious refrain of almost every domestic abuse scenario in pretty much every single daily paper we read. While the story in Guardians is glamored up with a lot of extremely fun sci fi, that is exactly what happens. Boyfriend (not husband, mind you), impregnates a woman then returns, if at all, only to abuse the child and batter then kill the mother. While Ego doesn’t beat Peter’s mother, I would say that infesting her with a brain tumor definitely qualifies as battery.

It is interesting that the character of Ego is played by Kurt Russell, an actor who made his name as a child actor portraying family friendly, father supported characters. In all his cinematic years he seems to know how to demonstrate the need for a good father by showing us one with no fatherly attributes.   

Ironically Ego is seeking “meaning” to his life. And cleverly, Peter expresses the thought about Gamora and Yondu that: “Sometimes the thing you want most is right next to you all the time.” The meaning Ego seeks he had found in Quill’s mother and the children he had bred. But he rejected all of them to serve is own enormous —– Ego.

Meanwhile, the sisters Gamora (Zoe Saldana, who also plays Uhura in the Star Trek reboot) and Nebula (Karen Gillian, unrecognizable under all the cybernetics from her stint as Amy Pond in the Matt Smith incarnation of Dr. Who Duke it out both physically and verbally until it is revealed that Nebula’s cyborg implants are the result of her losses to Gamora in fights when they were children. Every time she was defeated by Gamora in the combats set up by their father, Thanos, he would perform grisly replacement surgeries on her – arm, spine, eye – purportedly to make her stronger. Once again, the warped relationship with the father mangles these women physically and emotionally, pitting them against each other in a twisted desire to glorify himself under the guise of “strengthening” them.

Once again, it all comes down to the father.

And if this weren’t enough, both Yondu and Rocket (Bradley Cooper) admit to each other that they were betrayed by THEIR “father figures” – Yondu by his parents who sold him into slavery and Rocket by those who created him only to torture him with genetic engineering. Rocket is another example, like Gamora and Nebula, of parent figures who try to warp their “child” into images of themselves. Yondu is another example of the abandoned child.

In the course of the film it is explained that Yondu did not kidnap Peter but, like a reformed abortionist, could no longer stomach what was happening to the children he was delivering to Ego and decided to take Peter as his own, hide him from Ego and raise him the best way he knew how. Being a pirate that fathering took some unusual turns but it is made clearly evident that Peter was, indeed, the recipient of some solid mentoring and fathering, given the hero he becomes.

As another counter to Ego’s bad father example, Drax nostalgically grieves for the daughter he has lost. And then there is Groot – who steals EVERY-SINGLE-SCENE he is in. Every member of the crew functions in a parental or sibling way. Peter tells him to put on his seat belt before going into combat, Gamora cautions him to get out of the way during a firefight then humors him with a smile and wave. Drax and Rocket carry him on their shoulders, Rocket offers everything he has to the pirates who kidnap them just to ensure Groot’s survival, yet in other scenes Rocket listens carefully while Groot explains the origin of his discomfort with people who wear hats – all during a prison break, then later Rocket warns Groot that they will have to work on Groot’s tendency to use bad language (which we, of course, never hear because all he says are inflected variations of “I am Groot”). Groot’s healthy nurturing is underlined again in one of the post-credit scenes where Peter confronts a surly now-teenaged Groot sulking in his room with a computer game and Peter quips: “Now I know how Yondu felt,” acknowledging both his recognition of Yondu as his real father and the frustration of every parent at some point in the relationship between parent and adolescent child. These guys all demonstrate the importance of “being there” at the opportune moments in a child’s life when they need to be heard or chastized or sheltered or comforted or just held. And these moments are lost when a child is institutionally schooled.

This is the most eccentric homeschooling family since Gomez and Morticia decided that Wednesday and Pugsly weren’t getting the background important to the Aadams’ family traditions. But Groot — well —- blossoms (pun intended) beautifully under the care of the Guardians.

So, basically, what we have with Guardians is a super entertaining action adventure sci fi covering up a yin and yan of parenting and showing an unusual but thriving homeschool family. On the one hand you have the archetypal examples of bad father figures, represented by Ego and Thanos, who use their children instead of love them. On the other you have good parenting of the Guardians, who, ironically, represent almost every example of victims of bad parenting: abandoned, orphaned, abused, neglected, and used as extensions of their parents’ “Egos”, each of our crew has issues but rise above them to do their best to parent — Groot.

Yondu does his best to be a father substitute to Peter and makes the ultimate parental sacrifice of his life. Drax was brutally stripped of his children but becomes a protector to the other Guardians. All the abused children, from Yondu to Rocket, step up to do a better job with Groot, the child with which Fate has entrusted them. And we know Groot is in good hands because of the way they interact with him. One example of this bond is that the crew, despite the fact all Groot ever says is “I am Groot,” understands exactly, often in complex detail, what Groot is saying.

And this is what makes Guardians more than just another fun but forgettable adventure flick. The Guardians of the Galaxy are wonderful examples of how we can each do our own part to save the galaxy – one child at a time.