What a busy time it is at the cinema this Christmas! Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is either the second, third or fourth film in the series, depending on how you want to count them (the Robin Williams Jumanji from 1995, arguably Zathura: A Space Adventure form 2005, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle from 2017 and Jumanji: The Next Level from this very year). Then there's the little known film called Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, which is either the second, third, ninth or eleventh film (depending on if you're one of those revisionists who has blocked out The Last Jedi from 2017, if you want to count it only within the current trilogy, accept it as Episode IX or want to also add in Rogue One and Solo). Busy and confusing, all at the same time it would seem!
Both of these recent entries to their respective franchises are nothing short of great. Neither are groundbreaking or take any real risks but instead give people what the producers think they want. For the most part they are correct and I enjoyed them both immensely.
Spoilers from here on out.
Let's start with Jumanji: The Next Level as it was both out first and is probably quicker and easier to talk about. It takes the wonderful premise and cast from Welcome to the Jungle and effectively just rehashes the whole thing. That sounds bad but actually they do more than enough to keep it fresh by bringing in a couple of new characters and having the existing characters play different avatars for the majority of the film. The one exception being that Karen Gillan remains as Martha playing Ruby Roundhouse (though she does get a brief moment to be inhabited by a male player, as it were). Jack Black's Professor Oberon is no longer a teenage girl but instead playing 'Fridge', the other veteran of the primary four characters. This effectively makes Gillan and Black the main characters of the film this time, as the old hands. Kevin Hart and Dwayne 'the Dibbley' Johnson take the bulk of the comedy and emotional arc as two old friends, new to the game, who squabble and need to make up.
As the name suggests The Next Level is, like a computer game sequel, taking the basics of the previous and providing a new villain, quest and locales. Great set pieces, fun characters and, probably most importantly, it's funny (which seems not to be a given in Hollywood comedies anymore). If you enjoyed the previous film (and how could you not?) then this is a sure fire hit, too. Enjoy the wild ride!
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker had an altogether tougher mission, it needed to put behind it any controversy (for right or wrong) of the previous film (or two, if you include Solo) and provide closure not only to the current trilogy but to the Skywalker trilogy of trilogies as a whole. That's a 'big ask' as they say in Hollwoodland. For my money it did give sufficient closure and was as fitting an end as could reasonably be expected given the characters (and actors) they had to play with.
Star Wars is a film series that has been with me pretty much my entire life. I was three, going on four, when it first hit general release in the UK. I had a big (but not quite complete) set of the Palitoy/Kenner Star Wars figures and ships. It was a massive part of my childhood, before Doctor Who started to take over around 1983, particularly after Return of the Jedi. Star Wars never really went away and was especially rekindled by the West End Games roleplaying game and the original Timothy Zahn trilogy of Thrawn books in the early 90s, perhaps not coincidentally after Doctor Who disappeared from our screens. The Star Wars prequels were okay but were pretty neutral in my personal appreciation of the Galaxy far, far away. The sequels were better but can never replicate the effect that Star Wars of the late 70s/early 80s had on my young mind. Nonetheless the conclusion of the saga that I grew up with must have some deep meaning to me? I'm not sure it has, perhaps because it doesn't actually feel like the end of anything. The stories will continue, though maybe not with anyone named Skywalker but then I was always more interested in the world, the technology and, frankly, the bad guys than I ever was in Luke or Leia. I remember being upset that they killed off Darth Vader in Return of the Jedi (yes, there are some spoilers somewhere in here!) but I feel no upset or mourning for the franchise or anything/anyone in it this time.
The Rise of Skywalker was, for me, a very good film. I liked the redemption of Ben Solo, it felt earned in a way that Vader's never did. I was impressed by how well they managed to integrate Leia into the story, considering their wise decision not to attempt another CGI version of her. Lando's inclusion was distinctly less well done, almost a box ticking exercise of having an original trilogy main actor there as the screenwriters or life itself had killed off the other characters and/or actors (save for C-3P0's Anthony Daniels, of course). I was a tad disappointed by Hux's treatment in the film, I'd hoped he'd get some kind of even limited victory, though Richard E Grant was superb as his effective replacement.
Former emperor Palpatine's return was well handled, I thought. The retconning of him having been the mastermind behind this trilogy basically means that these nine films should be called the Palpatine saga rather than the Skywalker saga, I feel, especially with the slightly left-field revelation of Rey Palpatine. Though I have nothing against The Last Jedi, I do wish J.J. Abrams had overseen the entire trilogy, in the hope that these plot points could have been better seeded in (not that the original trilogy was great at that, either!) The prequel trilogy is the only one that doesn't feel completely made up as they went along.
The McGuffin searches in the first half of the film - get the dagger to get the wayfinder to get to the hidden Sith world - were a newish addition to the cinematic side of the franchise (not counting the Death Star plans in Rogue One) but I am unconvinced that was a great use of the limited screen time, though I don't know what would have been better, so I cannot really complain! This first half also has the fake out of two deaths, Chewie and C-3P0 (a kind of death) which to me shows how they were struggling with that half of the film.