Jumanji: The Next Level, 2019.
Directed by Jake Kasdan.
Starring Dwayne Johnson, Jack Black, Kevin Hart, Karen Gillan, Nick Jonas, Danny DeVito, Awkwafina, Danny Glover, Rhys Darby, Alex Wolff, Ser’Darius Blain, Madison Iseman, Morgan Turner, Rory McCann, Dania Ramirez, Darin Ferraro, Sal Longobardo, Massi Furlan, Michael Beasley, Colin Hanks, and Ashley Scott.
In Jumanji: The Next Level, the gang is back but the game has changed. As they return to rescue one of their own, the players will have to brave parts unknown from arid deserts to snowy mountains, to escape the world’s most dangerous game.
Can Dwayne Johnson doing a Danny DeVito impersonation or Kevin Hart reigning in his hyperactive persona to put on a dignified sage voice (mimicking Danny Glover) carry Jumanji: The Next Level to a passable sequel (I suppose it’s a trilogy now if you want to include all three films)? The answer would be yes if the running time didn’t surpass 2+ hours for some inexplicable reason (to be fair, it’s probably around 1 hour 55 minutes without the end credits, but the point still stands).
Jumanji: The Next Level is once again directed by Jake Kasdan (also serving as one of three writers) as Sony hopes for a repeat of the gangbusters box office success from 2017, so it makes sense not to tinker around with the core elements of production and casting. The problem is that the stinger for part 3 is what we should have got this time around, as this entry plays it safe repeating the gist of the previous experience. Maybe if Jumanji itself was feeling fresh again, the concept of voice copying mentioned above would be enough to ping the “achievement unlocked” blip following the finish, but it wears one down hitting upon the same plot beats and action elements.
Before diving back into the titular video game (remember, it is no longer a board game, and one of the pitfalls here is not another evolution to that) there is a prologue bringing audiences back into the world of the four high schoolers now in college. There is Alex Wolff portraying the insecure Spencer, his on-and-off long-distance girlfriend Martha (Morgan Turner), the physical and athletic Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain), and Madison Iseman’s Bethany (now less self-absorbed), with all of them having arranged a reunion of sorts. It doesn’t go as planned, as Spencer has lost the smoldering intensity that rubbed off on him while embodying the avatar of Dr. Bravestone, now feeling more insecure than ever especially as he notices his flame Martha seemingly enjoying the pleasures of life even without him by her side. The self-loathing causes him to reenter Jumanji (presumably to gain back some of that self-confidence before the big breakfast), ending up stuck once again. His friends notice his absence and decide to drop by his childhood home where he will be staying for Christmas (yes, there are some shameless holiday tie-ins, no doubt to hopefully further improve box office projections).
What they do find is Danny DeVito’s Grandpa Eddie and Danny Glover attempting to bury the hatchet about a restaurant they had formerly owned together before some regretted betrayal. To Danny DeVito’s credit, he’s a hoot both outside and inside the game, landing zingers and quips with charm and hilarity. However, the nonsense about their past is never once engaging, serving as one of many areas that could be trimmed.
It should be clear by now that one of Jumanji: The Next Level‘s frustrating missteps is that an unnecessary amount of time is spent on the lives of these bland individuals. If I want to watch Alex Wolff struggle with identity and relationships I’m going to watch his fantastic directorial debut The Cat and the Moon. Likewise, everyone else here is one-note, meaning that this sequel nearly sinks itself before it properly begins.
The game may as well be exactly the same, swapping one horribly generic in-game story for another one, complete with an expositional “cut scene” with writing so terrible Hideo Kojima’s eyes would probably roll back into his head just listening to it. The first one is allowed to get away with this because it’s also introducing us to actual game mechanics that these characters have to learn; everything from enhanced abilities, weaknesses, a limited amount of lives, a map system, how to communicate with NPC characters, a level structure ripped from the 90s, and a final boss so lackluster in terms of action there might not as well even be one. It’s understandable to use the template of a 90s game to dip one’s toes into figuring out exactly what to do with this reboot, but games have drastically evolved; a sequel to a Jumanji reboot utilizing the same structure should follow suit. These characters, including the audience, already know how this stuff works.
Instead, Jumanji: The Next Level goes through the same motions with fewer improvements than a yearly EA sports Madden title. It’s clear that the filmmakers are aware that the chemistry between these actors (not the young adults, but rather the gaming avatars once again comprised of Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Jack Black, and Karen Gillan) are the only source of energy for the proceedings. With that in mind, there are now secret areas that allow the characters to swap identities to mix-and-match who goes well with each avatar, making for the most efficient team layout.
As you can probably imagine, Danny DeVito does not make for a reliable or resourceful hero, even inside the body of The Rock. But I’ll be damned if he and Kevin Hart don’t absolutely nail the impressions laid before them; the latter gives what might be one of the best performances of his career, for once exhibiting a different kind of humor. Dwayne Johnson is also all-in with the self-deprecating material; he’s almost as good of a Danny DeVito as the real thing. Meanwhile, Spencer becomes a new character, Awkwafina’s kleptomaniac skilled with lockpicking saddled with allergic weaknesses. In that regard, his desperation to once again become more masculine and confident backfires, putting him into the shoes of someone with similarities to himself, admittedly making for a nice message about being yourself that for once doesn’t feel hammered home.
It’s not a spoiler to say that characters and avatars swap quite a bit, and it’s clear that the filmmakers and cast are having fun with the gimmick. The first half of Jumanji: The Next Level is actually quite entertaining, but one person can only take so many elderly jokes that basically amount to whatever happens when you sit down and play video games in front of your grandparents. This needed to be more than a retread, with a larger emphasis on integrating more intricate modern-day video game mechanics inside of a movie. That’s not to say there aren’t one or two impressive set pieces, because there is (a death trap involving rotating wooden bridges is both perilous and somehow makes geometry look useful and cool), but this is more cash-in than a sequel with effort. Jumanji: The Next Level simply lacks the ambition that the talented cast, as terrific as they are, just can’t salvage. They deserve better for being this funny and committed.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, friend me on Facebook, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, check out my personal non-Flickering Myth affiliated Patreon, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com