I have been working as a film journalist since 2010, dividing the first four years between radio broadcasting and entertainment writing in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. In 2014, I entered Fresh Fiction (FreshFiction.tv) as the features editor. The following year, I stepped into the film critic position at the Denton Record-Chronicle, a daily North Texas print publication. My time is dedicated to writing theatrical film reviews, at-home entertainment columns, and conducting interviews with on-screen talent and filmmakers, as well as hosting a podcast devoted to genre filmmaking (called My Bloody Podcast). I've been married for seven happy years, and I have one son who is all about dinosaurs just like his dad.
Connor Bynum // Film Critic
JUMANJI: WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE
Upon the announcement that the 1996 classic JUMANJI was getting a sequel, starring Dwayne Johnson and Kevin Hart, I must admit my expectations were low. How could any movie ever stand up next to one of the late Robin Williams’ most cherished films? Well, color me pleasantly surprised, because JUMANJI: WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE is popcorn-fueled escapism at its finest and a wonderful follow-up to its timeless predecessor.
Taking place 20 years after the original film, the mystical game would be nothing if not able to evolve with the times. Now transformed into a video game console rather than a tabletop board game, JUMANJI pulls from TRON’s playbook and sucks in whoever is foolish enough to pick up a controller. Enter four high schoolers straight out of the Breakfast Club. Avid gamer and hopeless nerd, Spencer (Alex Wolff), desperately tries to stay in contact with his childhood best friend turned super-jock, Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain), by doing his homework for him. Bethany (Madison Iseman), a stereotypical popular girl struggles to comprehend the concept of other people’s existence, and Martha (Morgan Turner) is a book smart social outcast with no real friends. Each of them finds a way to end up in detention where they uncover the titular game console and are absorbed into its world, where they must learn to work together if they ever hope to get out alive.
What follows is what makes the film such a fun time: each of these four kids is transformed into the polar opposites of their personality. Spencer, now played by Dwayne Johnson, has no idea what to do with his newfound herculean physique while Fridge takes the form of Kevin Hart, a comedian known for his small stature and big mouth. Martha is now a scantily-clad badass, played by Karen Gillan, and Bethany has been transformed into none other than a portly Jack Black.
Seeing these actors play such different characters than audiences are used to is a delightful breath of fresh air. Johnson still performs his obligatory tough-guy stunts, but never fails to maintain the persona of a dorky teenage kid. Gillan also dominates the action scenes, while jumping at the chance to call video games out on the way female characters are so often portrayed in the medium. However, Black by far and away steals the show with the most convincing portrayal of a teenage girl to ever come out of a 48-year-old man. Yet what makes his character work so well is that his schtick never feels mean spirited. Instead, the genuine sincerity he brings to the character is what makes it so funny.
While Hart is entirely enjoyable in a role that only he could play, his performance unfortunately never feels as connected to his teenage counterpart like the rest of his castmates. This isn’t necessarily through any fault of Hart’s, as much as it is for Ser’Darius Blain. Kevin Hart’s signature brand of chattery comedy would have worked so much better if Blain hadn’t established Fridge’s personality as a relatively collected and succinct tough guy. It’s a minor gripe to be sure, but when surrounded by three other knock-out performances it sadly tends to stick out.
JUMANJI: WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE is the kind of movie that brings a smile to one’s face from start to finish. With clever nods to video game tropes such as an intentionally one-dimensional villain, this is a move made for gamers and fans of the source material alike. With so many heavy handed dramas hitting theaters this time of year, it’s certainly refreshing to see a film that just wants you to have a great time at the movies.
JUMANJI: WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE opens in theaters nationwide today.