‘Jumanji: The Next Level’ is Worth It Mostly for the Actor-Persona Swapping

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CREDIT: Frank Masi/Sony Pictures Entertainment

Starring: Jack Black, Karen Gillan, Kevin Hart, Dwayne Johnson, Ser’Darius Blain, Madison Iseman, Morgan Turner, Alex Wolff, Danny DeVito, Danny Glover, Nick Jonas, Awkwafina, Colin Hanks, Rhys Darby, Rory McCann, Marin Hinkle

Director: Jake Kadan

Running Time: 123 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Intense CGI Animal Attacks

Release Date: December 13, 2019

Let’s be real: the biggest joy of 2017’s Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle wasn’t the game itself, but how it was played. I’m talking about the actors who played the video game avatars and how the conceit demanded that they depart so far from their typical personas. Dwayne Johnson had to act like a scrawny kid with allergies, Kevin Hart got to wonder why he wasn’t a foot taller, Karen Gillan was allowed to question the wisdom of midriff-baring in action scenarios, and Jack Black fulfilled his destiny by getting to play a superficial teenage girl. So if The Next Level, the third movie in this series (although let’s be real: this feels like the second movie, since the actual first movie is so far removed from these latter two, though I’ll do my best to call it the third. Also, side note: there’s a cameo of someone from the original film, but I didn’t even remember that she was in the original, so take from that what you will) wants to succeed, it ought to double down on that performance-with-a-performance framework, right? Definitely, although there’s also a hullabaloo about a plot and some frenetic action set pieces.

The Next Level, naturally enough, is about the next level in the video game, so it’s a little harder now for the gamers to successfully complete their mission of saving Jumanji. For us, that means a lot of the film is like watching someone else playing a video game, which can be enjoyable, but it usually doesn’t deliver the transcendence that cinema is designed to achieve. Maybe some viewers will really dig all this flying through the air and slamming into the scenery, but for me, it feels like an exhausting visual onslaught. Although, I must admit that the CGI-rendered ostriches and mandrills do look genuinely scary.

But back to the main attraction, as it behooves me to mention that Dannys DeVito and Glover have joined the Jumanji gang, and they have major parts, even when we don’t get to see their familiar faces. Glover plays Milo, former business partner to DeVito’s Eddie, grandfather to Spencer (Alex Wolff), whose lingering insecurity about life in general has led him to venture back into the game. His friends follow behind to rescue him, but since everything is a little haywire, Milo and Eddie are dragged in as well, and nobody gets to choose their avatars, though they also get some opportunities to switch around who’s playing whom. In Welcome to the Jungle, the young actors were not too well-known, so the actors playing the video game characters were playing types more than they were doing impressions. But now with the presence of some more familiar names, the routine gets to lean more toward impressions, which Hart, Johnson, and newcomer Awkwafina take full advantage of. Honestly, in this day and age of strife and division, the world would be a lot better if we all spent some time pretending to be Danny DeVito. So, in that sense, The Next Level is a net good.

Jumanji: The Next Level is Recommended If You Like: Watching other people play video games, Danny DeVito impressions, Danny Glover impressions

Grade: 3 out of 5 Life Bars

Movie Review: ‘Dumbo’ Takes Flight on the Strength of Some Truly Captivating CGI

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CREDIT: Disney Enterprises

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

Director: Tim Burton

Running Time: 112 Minutes

Rating: PG for Steampunk-Style Circus-Based Peril and Implied PTSD

Release Date: March 29, 2019

CGI has become so commonplace in modern big-budget filmmaking that it is hard to be impressed anymore, even when there is clearly hundreds of millions of dollars worth of coding and manpower up on the screen. Correspondingly, the possibility of feeling a genuine connection with a computer-generated character often feels generally impossible. I would not expect that hurdle to be cleared by Disney’s live-action remake factory or late-era Tim Burton. But incredibly, the title baby pachyderm in Dumbo is one of the best CGI creations in a while. Ever, even. It usually seems that practical effects are necessary to create a spirit-filled non-human character, but this is something unique that could really only be achieved with digital technology. And it is amazingly quite soulful.

From the moment that Dumbo emerged from a pile of hay and looked up at everyone around him with his wonder-filled baby blues, I was enthralled. The magical floppy ears are just a bonus. But oh, what a bonus they are. Every single time that Dumbo took flight rendered me immediately choked up and awestruck. But as joyous as those moments are, I would have been won over by this little guy even he couldn’t fly. I loved seeing his eyes light up at the circus amusements (it’s the same thrill I get from watching YouTube videos of dogs who think that they’re people), especially the homage to the originals “Pink Elephants on Parade” done entirely through bubble form.

As for the human characters, and there are plenty of them, they mostly fill their roles admirably, but none are as unforgettable as Dumbo. Nico Parker and Finley Hobbins are delightful as a young brother-sister pair who have the closest connection to the beast, while Colin Farrell reliably pulls off the right emotional beats as their widowed father who lost an arm in World War I. Danny DeVito is right in his wheelhouse as a small-time circus ringmaster and owner who finds his full fatherly-protector spirit once he starts drawing in crowds like he’s never seen. He matches ambitions with Michael Keaton’s rival showman who wants to exploit Dumbo for his full wealth-generating potential. The message about the dehumanizing effects of capitalism is clear and welcome, though there could have been more room to explore a more complicated take on that theme. But ultimately, you can get away with a few minor disappointments if the main attraction is undeniably flying high.

Dumbo is Recommended If You Like: The original Dumbo, Cute animal videos, Batman Returns, A cameo from Michael Buffer (the “Let’s get ready to rumble!” guy)

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Feathers

This Is a Movie Review: ‘Smallfoot’ is a Bighearted, Non-Abominable Delight

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CREDIT: Warner Bros. Animation

This post was originally publshed on News Cult in September 2018.

Starring: Channing Tatum, James Corden, Zendaya, Common, LeBron James, Gina Rodriguez, Danny DeVito, Yara Shahidi

Director: Karey Kirkpatrick

Running Time: 96 Minutes

Rating: PG for Falling Thousands of Feet with Few Lasting Consequences

Release Date: September 28, 2018

A surefire formula in storytelling is the whole ol’ switcheroo. Taking a timeworn trope and turning its perspective inside out has proven to be valuable on many occasions. Smallfoot runs with that idea, getting a lot of mileage out of reversing its approach to a common myth. It does not just presuppose a world in which Yeti do exist, but one in which there is an entire race of them with their own advanced society. Furthermore, to the Yeti, the existence of humans is the stuff of legends, thus the moniker of the mythical “Smallfoot.” It’s not the most profound premise, but it’s delightful enough to tickle those in the mood for wonder.

It all comes down to, as so many of these animated jaunts do, an interspecies friendship. Migo (Channing Tatum) is a Yeti on the verge of taking on some adult Yeti responsibility when his world rocked by the appearance of a creature with a less-than-gigantic footprint. He proceeds to venture down below the clouds to find the truth behind this encounter, which is when his path crosses with Percy Patterson (James Corden), a nature TV host desperate to restore his popularity. Both man and beast can speak intelligently, but Migo’s words sound like growls to Percy, and Percy’s sound like squeaks to Migo. Yet somehow a connection is forged, and the repartee is quite charming from Tatum and Corden, as well as Zendaya as a fellow Yeti who is especially enthusiastic about the existence of Smallfoots. Providing the ominous (but also unnervingly wise) counterpoint is Common as the Stonekeeper, a Yeti elder who knows the reality of Yeti-human history but propagates an elaborate mythology designed to prevent the truth from being exposed.

As you might guess based on its genre and some of its cast members, Smallfoot is a musical, which I found to be a tad exhausting. To be fair, that is my typical reaction to musicals, what with their inherently overly dramatic manipulation of emotions, and Smallfoot‘s songs do not do much to change my mind. But there is one number rapped by Common that wonderfully reveals the foundation of Yeti society and serves as the crux of the film. The tension driving the best moments of Smallfoot are all about being lost (or not quite lost) in translation. The fear and anticipation mixed up by this inherent confusion leads to a bunch of hijinks and a lot of intrigue and ultimately an attempt at peace and integration that offers hope that this motley world can make it with all of its mixed-up parts working together.

Smallfoot is Recommended If You Like: The search for Bigfoot and the Abominable Snowman, Happy Feet, Storks

Grade: 3 out of 5 Footprints