Jumanji: The Next Level, 2019.
Directed by Jake Kasdan.
Starring Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Jack Black, Karen Gillan, Nick Jonas, Alex Wolff, Morgan Turner, Ser’Darius Blain, Madison Iseman, Awkwafina, Danny Glover, and Danny DeVito.
When Spencer goes back into the fantastical world of Jumanji, pals Martha, Fridge, and Bethany re-enter the game to bring him home. But everything about Jumanji is about to change, as they soon discover more obstacles and more danger to overcome.
Both for better and for worse, Jumanji: The Next Level is almost the exact same movie most of us saw in 2017 – the surprisingly amusing Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle – which was in turn propelled to a most unexpected $962.1 million worldwide, despite facing stiff competition from Star Wars: The Last Jedi.
That movie isn’t remembered so much for its plot or its set-pieces, but rather the infectious charms of its A-list cast, gamely embracing the focal body-swap gimmick with all their might – especially an hysterical Jack Black.
And though it’s incredibly easy to view this admittedly low-effort sequel with a sure air of cynicism, the efforts of the appealingly expanded cast make this blockbuster sequel just fun enough for fans of its predecessor.
Sensibly, the film wastes little time on pre-sortie preambles, jettisoning the audience back into Jumanji after a few scant scenes. The rationale for bringing the gang back to a game they a) almost died in and b) supposedly destroyed, is howlingly lazy for sure, but the expediency with which the script barrels through this nonsense implies a self-awareness that renders it somewhat more tolerable.
And though The Next Level does introduce a few new wrinkles – we get some snow-topped action this time and there’s an entertainingly hammy final boss played by Rory McCann – the one inspired new narrative flourish is the decision to amp up the body-swap shenanigans.
For starters, various characters end up inhabiting different bodies from the first movie; Jack Black now spends a large chunk of the movie as the avatar for Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain), requiring him to delicately portray an incredulous black teenager with good humour while tip-toeing on the precipice of stereotype.
Hilariously, Dwayne Johnson is now impersonating Spencer’s (Alex Wolff) surly grandfather Eddie (Danny DeVito), and though Johnson gives oddly one of the less-effervescent performances in the movie – just as he did in the first – his DeVito impression is nevertheless hilariously, weirdly great.
If Black in particular keeps the film peppy during even its more languorous moments – which, with a wildly bloated 123-minute runtime, there are many – what really holds the film in gear is the injection of new faces both fresh and not-so-fresh. Awkwafina shows up mid-film as video game avatar Ming Fleetfoot, a sneaky thief who Spencer ends up embodying for a brief while, before he ends up swapped out with Eddie. Naturally, Awkwafina’s deeply nasal DeVito impression – bearing an odd vocal resemblance to Natasha Lyonne – is one of the film’s easy highlights.
DeVito himself of course only appears outside of the game, but he’s clearly having a ton of fun playing a family-friendly sourpuss, and in a surprising move, his bond with his grandson actually proves weirdly moving, especially in the film’s final stretch. His cantankerous old-timer could’ve so easily been a throwaway character or a mere excuse to exploit the Internet’s wealth of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia memes, yet by pic’s end he actually feels like an honest-to-God character, which is more than can be said for some of his younger co-stars.
But even accepting the go-for-broke performances on offer, there will be those who simply won’t find the film stimulating enough to justify its own existence, and that’s understandable. The various CGI-driven set-pieces are fun and flighty yet almost instantly forgettable for the most part, reflecting a film that’s entertaining while you’re watching it, though won’t rattle around in the brain for long thereafter.
And even on a purely scripted level, The Next Level makes the textbook comedy sequel mistake of hinging back on the previous film’s laughs all too frequently. Many prior gags are re-enacted here with a disappointing exactitude, with little attempt made to subvert or expand upon Welcome to the Jungle‘s surprisingly literate approach to the internal mechanics of video games themselves.
But again, personality goes a long way, and as such this proves to be an intensely difficult film to dislike. Yes, it’s aiming fairly low all things considered, but as a “hangout movie” I’d watch again without having to think too hard or pay too much attention, it delivers acceptable escapist thrills.
What’s most surprising of all, perhaps, is that the film’s mid-credits tease for a third movie seemingly promises to break with the schematic of the last two and actually do something different. Given how tough it’d be to convince audiences to return for a third go-around of this creaky formula, it’s a setup that almost leaves one – whisper it – looking forward to the next (and hopefully final) one.
A more-of-the-same sequel with diminishing returns on its predecessor’s surprising charms, though still entertaining enough thanks to its well-matched cast.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more film rambling.