Principal Cast : Dwayne Johnson, Jack Black, Kevin Hart, Karen Gillan, Awkwafina, Nick Jonas, Rory McCann, Danny DeVito, Danny Glover, Alex Wolff, Ser’Darius Blain, Morgan Turner, Madison Iseman, Colin Hanks, Rhys Darby, Bebe Neuwirth.
Synopsis: 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.
Given the success of the 2017 Jumanji reboot, it was only natural a sequel would be pushed into production quickly, and it shows. Jumanji: The Next Level is a solid continuation of the earlier film, bringing back the entire cast as well as throwing a few new entrants into the mix, but this time the surprises are fewer, the laughs a lot less refined, and the plot a complete mess. It’s still a lot of fun, mind, and my kids had a blast watching it, even if it’s a hollow continuation that makes lesser use of its shining lights and pushes a weird old-man subplot into the forefront. The visual effects are on-point and the action sequences range from the spectacular (a Mandrill chase across a chasm filled with moving rope bridges) to the forgettable (an early ostrich herd chase) to the downright preposterous (The Rock fighting The Hound aboard an enormous zeppelin for some reason) that might make for a thunderous adventure movie but lack the same energetic boldness Jake Kasdan’s original film attained.
Three years after the events of Welcome To The Jungle, our four friends have gone their separate ways, although one, Martha (Morgan Turner) seeks a reunion at their old home town. Two of them, Anthony “Fridge” Johnson (Ser’Darius Blain) and Beth Walker (Madison Iseman) return favourable, but Martha’s former boyfriend, Spencer (Alex Wolff), who is having a hard time living in New York City, doesn’t make the scheduled gathering. The remaining trio arrive at Spencer’s family home to discover his grandfather, Eddie (Danny DeVito) and Eddie’s former business associate Milo Walker (Danny Glover) alone there, and learn that Spencer has not only salvaged the former console game Jumanji but repaired it enough to re-enter it. This time, however, the friends don’t get time to choose thier avatars before they’re sucked into the game, where they become Dr Xander Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson), Shelly Oberon (Jack Black), Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillen) ad Mouse Finbar (Kevin Hart), the avatars within the game. This time, they’re taken to a new level of Jumanji, once more introduced by Nigel Billingsley (Rhys Darby), and are tasked with retrieving a powerful gem from the possession of new villain Jurgen The Brutal (Game of Thrones’ Rory McCann).
The heart and soul of Welcome To The Jungle was the relationship between the four teenagers struggling to get through the game. As the game went on, they learned about themselves, each other, and formed a bond drawn from communal endeavour in escaping Jumanji the first time. This time, the film isn’t about them, which is a shame. Instead, screenwriters Jake Kasdan (who again directs), Jeff Pinker and Scott Rosenberg shift their focus to the bond between Spencer’s ailing grandfather, played by Danny DeVito, and the relationship he had with an equally elderly Danny Glover, who once co-owned a local restaurant before selling up and retiring, something Eddie is still bitter about. Now this isn’t a problematic story device in and of itself, but where The Next Level comes undone is playing this fractured bond as central to the motifs within the Jumanji game embarked upon in this instalment. The shift from a teen-centric adventure story to an angry-old-man scenario doesn’t work, and goes a fair way to souring the relatively feel-good tone of the first film, more’s the pity. I admire the inclusion of DeVito and Glover into the framework of the film – and it gives the film its greatest running gag – but it does little to make The Next Level feel as fresh and zany as the previous movie.
In transitioning two elderly people into the avatars we’re familiar with – Glover’s character inhabits the avatar of Kevin Hart, whilst DeVito is thrust into the muscular figure of Johnson – the film’s great strength is watching both Hart and Johnson do gut-busting imitations of these well known actors. Hart is particularly good with Glover’s mannerisms, although the opportunity to deliver the “I’m too old for this shit” line, which would have absolutely slayed, is disappointingly missed. Karen Gillen and Jack Black once more provide some nice comedic moments as they mimic their respective real-world counterparts, whilst the addition of Awkwafina as another Jumanji avatar is a true blessing I didn’t know I needed. Akwafina’s natural comedic patter is disrupted by the demands of her character, but just enough peeks through to make her eventual appearance worth the wait. Nick Jonas reprises his role as Colin Hanks’ adult character from Welcome To The Jungle, and Rhys Darby as the NPC Billingsworth is again screamingly on-point. Poor Rory McCann cannot escape a fur cloak costume again for his work as the butchery Jurgen The Brutal, a charisma-free arch-villain used as a MacGuffin rather than an actual legitimate antagonist. Bobby Cannavale’s Van Pelt had far more heft in Welcome To The Jungle and his brand of eyebrow lifting villainy is sorely missed here.
Like both its predecessor and the original 1995 film, The Next Level is entirely a rollercoaster of adventure, thrills and excitement. And in keeping with all the best Hollywood can muster, Kasdan has assembled a really entertaining thrill ride for visual effects geeks and green-screen fanatics the world over. The stakes the plot evokes aren’t particularly clear, and you get the sense that the story is a means to an end rather than motivation itself: it’s an action film for the sake of action, rather than telling a good story with action used to further the characters, but the film has some nice moments to make you smile: the aforementioned mandrill chase sequence is particularly good, whilst the climactic fight between Johnson’s Bravestone and McCann’s Jurgen aboard an entirely WTF zeppelin above a villainous mountain hideout is simply too silly for words. And if I say silly within the context of a Jumanji film, you know it’s silly. Still, Kasdan helms this knockabout flick with a sense of enjoyment and understanding of the world he’s built, and plays to its strengths more often than not. Although the bookending “dramatic” real-world scenes feel a touch too melancholy, and aren’t really responded to within the game itself during the movie, there’s just enough meat on the grand old adventure to ensure you come away at least smiling.
The Next Level of Jumanji feels overproduced, in my opinion. It’s a solid adventure film, and has plenty of nice moments that call back to earlier films and build on the work done in them, but it’s too reliant on overcoming a weird tonal shift and focus on new characters lacking interest to really land as well as I expected. There’s a sense of something missing, a lack of duality the earlier film played so well with, and the breathless pace of the plot, while in keeping with Kasdan’s previous entry, never gives the film a chance to breathe. This combination of problems results in a film that superficially delivers rousing adventure but feels indifferent to the characters it introduced before. I’m not ready to watch a comedy film where Danny DeVito struggles to find his feelings, even in avatar form; I want a sequel where characters I know and love come back to face off against their own issues again – that kinda happens here to Alex Wolff’s Spencer but it’s glossed over super quick and resolved within a single scene mid-film – and this Jumanji never works hard enough to get me to a different headspace not to be disappointed I didn’t get it.
Brash, slick, intermediately amusing and altogether blockbusting in every sense, Jumanji: The Next Level will please fans of the franchise and newcomers to its charms, but some of the gloss has worn off this time. In trying to replicate the breezy fun of Welcome To The Jungle, and take this franchise into Empire Strikes Back territory, Jake Kasdan has fumbled the focus on new characters to shoulder the emotional core of the story; these aren’t leading characters, let’s face it, but rather glorified supporting roles designed to serve the story as exactly that. Having them thrust uncomfortably into the spotlight makes them awkwardly inconsequential. Loud and proud, The Next Level serves up some sweaty gaming fun but like most sequels runs the gag too far too often and limps to an unemotional conclusion.