There’s a lot to look at in this movie, but unpleasant characters keep getting in the way. And I don’t mean the bad guys.
In this follow-on to Jumanji, like this movie, based on a book by Chris Van Allsburg, children once again come upon an old board game that turns out to be real. So when Danny (Jonah Bobo) draws a card that says, “Meteor Shower: Take Evasive Action,” and asks his big brother Walter (Josh Hutcherson) what it says, a tiny but very real meteor burns through the card before Walter can finish reading it aloud. And then things really get out of hand — and out of this world. When they open up the front door, they are in outer space.
The only way to get back home is to keep playing until someone wins. And that means picking card after card to move around the board. An astronaut (Dax Shepard) needs to be rescued. A robot needs to be reprogrammed. And there’s an attack from alien lizards called Zorgons who like to burn things and eat people.
Through all this, Danny and Walter (and, near the end, their sulky teenage sister Lisa) need to find a way to get over their sibling animosity and develop some mutual respect and teamwork.
The good news is that this movie avoids some of the mistakes of Jumanji. It doesn’t waste our time with a distracting backstory or superfluous Big Star. This is all about the visuals and special effects, and they are superb. The game itself has an engagingly authentic retro feel and the special effects serve the action without being overly intrusive.
I wish I could say the same for the kids, who are dismally unappealing. If you’re going to have the plot center on sniping siblings who need to learn how much they really care about each other, there has to be some spark of heart from the beginning. They have to show us that they behave that way because they are hurting, that they are not just brats. No luck here. Director Jon Favreau did well with Elf because he was directing pros like Will Ferrell and James Caan. He shows no skill whatsoever with the children; he barely seems interested in them as more than props. The robot gives a more believable performance. Favreau allows the kids to use unforgiveably crude and downright mean language and their older sister to come across as unforgiveably skanky for a movie directed at children. That gives it an unsavory tone that further undermines the cozy conclusion. It doesn’t feel heartwarming; it feels more mechanical than the Zorgon spaceship.
Parents should know that this movie continues the MPAA’s disturbing trend of allowing very crude langauge in PG movies. One child calls another a “dick” (though gets a quick reprimand for it). Another uses the word “bi-atch.” And (spoiler alert) there is a really ewww-ish moment as a character has brief romantic feelings toward someone who turns out to be a relative. Of more concern is the overall behavior of the siblings in this movie. They are consistently unkind to each other and generally bratty in a way that goes far beyond anything that can be redeemed with the brief reconcilliation at the end. Parents should also know that there is a great deal of action-style peril and violence in the movie, though no one gets hurt except for an alien or two. Some families will be concerned about the issue of separated parents and the impact that has on the way the children see their role in the family (and their responsibility for the divorce).
Families who see this movie should talk about what kind of game they would like to be able to make real. They should also talk about why the children in this movie are so mean to each other and what kids can do to respond to feelings of being hurt and lonely.
Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy Jumanji and the books by Chris Van Allsburg, especially The Mysteries of Harris Burdick.