Jumanji Welcome to the Jungle

I hear people in the blogging community complaining about this film as if it is besmirching a classic film to do another version. Get off it people. The 1995 version was a perfectly acceptable piece of family entertainment for it’s time. It featured elaborate early CGI and Robin Williams. There is a warm family story buried in the action adventure plot and all the good guys win and the villains are vanquished. Guess what, that is exactly the same scenario of this film, just take out Robin Williams and insert Dwayne Johnson, and you have the same outcome.


This concept is updated to reflect more modern sensibilities, so the board game is a computer game, and a transgendered Jack Black makes penis jokes, but none that can’t keep the movie it’s PG-13 rating. Basically the “Breakfast Club” travels to a different dimension and in addition to playing the game, they try to resolve social problems that they have in their “real” life as well. There are no big surprises here. Nothing shows up that you could not anticipate, but it is all carried off in an entertaining manner with a lot of humor and good old fashioned adventure story.

Two things that did standout a bit, and add a little something to the mix. The film is very self-aware when it comes to the sexual stereotyping that exists in a video game. It plays with that a little but not enough to be a polemic on the subject. I also appreciated that the teachers and Principal of the High School that the kids all attend, are not comic book figures for ridicule. They all have reasonable demands that they are making of their students and they are really trying to help the kids, even if the kids can’t see it.

The cast here is all game for the film. “The Rock” continues to be a reliable presence in almost all films he appears in, even the bad ones. In this movie he gently mocks himself as a character but also plays the hero role well. Jack Black is hit or miss these days and a little goes a long way. I think he was well used as the avatar of the most self centered girl in the school, he is the complete visual opposite but manages to convey her personality in his performance. Maybe Karen Gillian works in the movie because she has done the video-game thing herself in earlier work. I have only known her from the “Guardians of the Galaxy” but she is apparently a Dr. Who video game fixture. This is a second pairing of Kevin Hart with Johnson, I think they should go ahead and repeat the tag line for “Central Intelligence” for this film. It would work.

So the movie will not win over any converts, but those with an open mind will find some entertainment. If you and your family end up in a theater seeing this, you won’t hate yourselves but you won’t get much more than some entertainment out of it. That seems like a perfectly acceptable objective, and it is a perfectly acceptable film.

The Secret Life of Pets

Do you have a dog? Is there a cat sitting in your lap right now? Have you ever made bubble noises to a fish? If your answer to any of these questions is yes, than you will enjoy this film that speculates on how the other side of people pet relationships might feel about the connection. Ultimately, this movie is more for kids than I thought it would originally be, but it does pick out several of the things that we animal lovers believe about our friends and uses those to make us smile, laugh and worry.

I’m going to start with a cautious comparison here. The pets featured in this movie are much like the Toys featured in the Toy Story films. There is a major focus on how the humans relate to the subject of the film, and then there is a plot element about how the subject relates to other similar characters. Finally, there is a plot concerning the separation of the subject from it’s human owner. Those are the basics of the story in the films I mentioned. The Toy Story films though, manage to build more heart and drama into their telling of the tale. Illumination Studio has created a nice design, and built in a number of gags to entertain us, but they miss the elusive spark that manages to make the Pixar films work so memorably [ at least most of the time].  This is a solid entertainment for certain, but it is not a classic that will be treasured by audiences down through the years.

We pet owners who have given voice to our furry and feathered and scaled pals over the years, both inside our heads and out loud, will have an easy time relating to this movie. Anthropomorphic conversations and interpretations of animal behavior are one of the delights in pet ownership. We get to project our own desires for the relationship onto the pet and there is basically no way we can be wrong. When an outcome is not as we predicted or wanted, we will come up with an internalized excuse and then put it in the mouth of our buddies. If that sounds like you, this movie will have a lot going for it. The main problem is that the humans disappear after the opening and only the animals remain. Instead of a thoughtful exploration of the connection that humans and pets make with one another, as last years Inside/Out did with families and our own feelings, we get an extended Road Runner cartoon. The plot is funny and manic and very entertaining, but it leaves all the nuance on the table.

Max is the star of the movie. He is a terrier voiced by Louie C.K., for the most part without any snark. When Duke, a oversized shaggy stray is interjected into his life, Max changes his demeanor in some ways and it looks like there will be an interesting story about the differences between animal and human nature to follow. What happens instead is that Max and Duke get thrown together in a buddy road comedy with a variety of complications tossed in. Both Max and Duke, voiced by Eric Stonestreet from Modern Family, seem like they are amiable dogs that have to resolve some differences. Those differences become mostly irrelevant when they are both pursued by animal and human antagonists, at which point, their behavior is basically interchangeable.

Kevin Hart provides the voice for a demented bunny and this is his third movie role this year and ninth in the last three years. The danger of over-exposure here is high, but since it is an animated character and the antics never have any sense of reality to them, his over the top manner is not really a problem for the movie. Albert Brooks is back in an animated film that is competing with his other animated film, “Finding Dory” this weekend. While not as egregious as last year’s “Minions“,  this movie does make repeated use of music cues from other films for the sake of getting the audience to connect emotionally with the story, rather than building a solid plot line. The one spot where it works effectively though, is in the sausage dream that the two main characters share, a better use of “We Go Together” from “Grease” cannot be imagined.

If you enjoy kids movies on their own, this is a peach of a film. If you are expecting something deeper, you may be disappointed but you will still be entertained. Don’t let the fact that there is a “Minions” cartoon in front of this discourage you. “The Secret Life of Pets” may not rise to the level of “Despicable Me” but it sure as heck does not sink to the banality of that last film with the banana colored characters in overalls. If you have kids, definitely take them, if you are an adult, you can put this one off for a bit and not feel like you have been denied an important film, just like you skipped a candy bar that you would enjoy more at a later time.

Central Intelligence


Let’s start with a little critical thinking lesson. Sign reasoning is the basic concept that is easily explained by the old phrase, “If it looks like a duck, and it quacks like a duck, and it walks like a duck… than it’s probably a duck.”  Now here is where the critical thinking comes in, how certain is the relationship between the signs and the conclusion?  Today’s movie offers us several signs that it is a problem, before a single moment of the film runs. First, it’s a mismatched buddy film featuring a C.I.A. plot. Second, the trailer features a cheap CGI joke about a fat kid singing in the shower getting bullied. Third, it stars Kevin Hart, a comedian and actor that I have rarely found to be funny. You put those things together and the conclusion is that this film is a piece of crap. To test the validity of the conclusion we might look for other signs that would reinforce the original point. For a guy like me, who grew up in the golden ages of poster art, the visual image on the poster, with the bright yellow background screams “Turd”.

Now, let’s point out the weakness of this conclusion using the other tests of sign reasoning, are there any contradictory signs?  Before seeing a frame of the movie, I can say there are two signs that might undermine the conclusion above. First, Kevin Hart is balanced out by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. Maybe you haven’t noticed yet but “The Rock” has become a legitimate movie star and he exudes charisma in everything he’s been in.  [As a caveat to the argument, he has been in a lot of crappy pictures, but they were not bad because of him.] Second, the marketing team has had one great idea to sell this film with, a pun based on the names of the two stars. It’s not much but I’m a Dad and everyone knows that Dad’s like bad puns. In one of my classes this last quarter, I had a student take it upon himself to keep a tally of all the bad puns I made in class. He had me over 150, which for a class that meets twice a week averages almost 4 bad puns an hour, and by the way, more than 40% of class time is taken up by student performance, so if we calculate based on my speaking time the average is well over ten an hour. Which explains why I appreciated the “Little Hart/Big Johnson” tag line, despite it’s low brow approach.

Drawing inferences from the above issues, I think it is safe to say I probably would stay away from a film like this for the most part. So how, you might ask, did I end up seeing it?  Now it’s time for a little cause-effect reasoning. It’s hot here this weekend, and the theater is cold. Also, “Finding Dory” is off limits until my daughter can go with us. Finally, a little disjunctive deductive reasoning, my alternatives for the time we had were “Warcraft” “X-Men Apocalypse” “Now You See Me 2” and “Me Without You”. I barely escaped the wheelchair love story, and everything else looked worse.

Having rationalized my way into the film, “How was it?” The answer is, …not as bad as you might think. Although Kevin Hart did not do much for me, he did not undermine the film and there were a couple of places where he delivered a pretty fair line or two. I could have done without the string of dialogue he throws out when describing his character as being scarred “S***less”, but maybe his audience likes that kind of humor. Johnson on the other hand seems to be having a ball, and he actually conveys a series of convincing emotions, which are supposed to be contradictory because we are not really supposed to understand his real character. It’s all very convoluted and not important except to say that once again, the man once known as “The Rock” is worth every penny he was paid to be a part of this film.

The movie trades on cliches in some deliberate ways, but it also repeats some cliches without the irony that would make them less likely to choke us. There are two surprise cameo appearances and both actors add a little something to the film that it needed to avoid being dreck. I was pleasantly surprised by last year’s “Spy” which covers some of the same territory. This is not quite as satisfying and I can’t recommend it highly, but if you have no air conditioning, and you want a couple of laughs, this film will kill two hours and not too many brain cells.