Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle was easily the biggest cinematic surprise of 2017. Nobody expected a modern-day reboot/sequel of a beloved classic Robin Williams film to be more than a cynical cash-in. Instead, it was hellishly entertaining. There’s not much surprising about Jumanji: The Next Level though. If you want to lean fully into the video game trappings that the previous film employed so brilliantly to modernize this affair, this is not so much a sequel as it is extra downloadable content (DLC). The makers are still using the same graphics engine, the same character models, the same gameplay mechanics. They’ve just spruced things up a bit with some new voice lines, new character costumes, a few new game levels, and a new boss. DLC can still be fun though.
It’s been a year since the events of the previous film in which high school teens Spencer (Alex Wolff), Martha (Morgan Turner), Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain), and Bethany (Madison Iseman) were sucked into the game world of Jumanji, and forced to overcome their personal issues to make it back out alive. Since then three of the four have been off living their lives, embracing the better people they have become due to their shared experience. But having moved to New York for his studies, Spencer is feeling cut off and lonely. It doesn’t help that his long-distance relationship with Martha has fizzled out due to his neuroses. So, in an attempt to regain the confidence in himself he had a year earlier, when Spencer goes back home for the holidays, he decides to re-enter Jumanji, despite the group promising each other they would never go back
When his friends go looking for him at his old house and realize what Spencer has done, they go in after him – if all four of them together barely survived Jumanji the first time, what hope did he have by himself? There’s a catch though. The foursome had destroyed the Jumanji video game console after their first trip, and while Spencer had pieced together enough of the busted parts to get it working again, it’s definitely not working right. And so instead of allowing them to choose their preferred in-game avatars, it sucks them right in randomly. Adding a further dash of chaos, it also pulls in Spencer’s ailing grandfather Eddie (Danny DeVito) and his erstwhile best friend Milo (Danny Glover) who just happened to be in the house at the time bickering over their failed friendship.
And when the video game dust settles, things are not the way anybody expected. While Martha is back in the ass-kicking form of Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan), Fridge has ended up as “the map guy”, Prof. Shelly Oberon (Jack Black), previously inhabited by Bethany who is now nowhere to be found. Mouse Finbar (Kevin Hart), the zoologist/weapons specialist that Fridge previously played, is now played by the long-winded Milo, while Spencer’s brave man-mountain team-leader, Dr. Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson), is played by the hard-of-hearing Eddie. And all of that is just returning director/co-writer Jake Kasdan’s roundabout way to get Johnson and Hart to talk in funny voices. That’s it.
While initially watching Johnson-as-DeVito and Hart-as-Glover has its charm, complete with their septuagenarian ailments and lack of understanding about what a video game actually is and that they’re stuck in one, the act gets old fast. Clearly not for Kasdan and returning co-screenwriters Jeff Pinkner and Scott Rosenberg though, who give us about half a dozen too many “Are we in Florida?” styled confused-old-man jokes.
While it is intriguing watching the usually motormouth Hart have to slow down as the glacial Milo, Johnson’s act is a lot iffier. His scrunched up face and cranky voiced “HUH?!” will definitely get laughs for how against type it is, but the moment the movie shifts gears to more dramatic efforts, the mummery falls apart. DeVito’s Eddie actually has the most poignant ruminations in the film and they would land even better if they had actually come from him more often. When he’s on-screen in the flesh, DeVito’s a gem.
Meanwhile, Gillan’s Ruby Roundhouse often has to play the straight guy to the Johnson and Hart’s vaudeville act, and she handles it affably. Black as the exasperated Fridge, who somehow managed to get a worse in-game character than last time, is also a hoot. And much like he when he played vapid teen Bethany in the first film, as the athletic Fridge trapped inside schlubby Shelly, Black steals the show. Well, him and Awkwafina as… Actually that would be giving away one of Jumanji: The Next Level’s few narrative surprises. I will just say that the rapidly rising comedic actress shows again why she’s quickly becoming a favourite.
The foursome of Smolder, Rube, Mouse, and Shelly run into Awkwafina’s character as part of the actual quest within Jumanji that they have to complete to escape the game. It’s a boiler-plate fetch quest involving a growly warlord (Rory McCann) and a magic gem MacGuffin that is hardly worth mentioning. The quest does at least allow Kasdan to not just bring back veteran Jumanji player Seaplane McDonough (Nick Jonas), but also shift affairs to several new locales for new action beats. The action throughout – which includes an ostrich stampede in the dessert and a frantic escape from mandrills on rope bridges – is brisk and nimble, with Kasdan competently juggling all the many moving parts. Tense chase moments are intercut with gags and all of it is slathered in impressive CG effects. However, while it’s all thrilling but there’s nothing quite as fresh and engaging as the previous film’s offerings.
And I guess that’s Jumanji: The Next Level’s biggest issue. It’s not a bad film. Not at all. It’s bold and bright, with big punchlines and even bigger characters, and it’s script actually has something to say about the bitter-sweetness of growing up and how that affects friendships. The problem is that Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle arrived out of nowhere like a cannon blast of unexpected awesomeness and this really doesn’t. Even Kasdan and co’s irreverent takes on video game features, including non-player characters (NPC’s), cutscenes, player stats, and respawning lives add nothing new to the mix here.
Is it all still fun though? Definitely. And especially for audience members who will have more mileage for Johnson and Hart’s old man schtick than I did. In fact – to get back to that video game metaphor I promptly abandoned after my opening paragraph – Jumanji: The Next Level does enough in terms of blockbuster entertainment to warrant another life if this franchise should go on from here.
Last Updated: December 13, 2019