Unlike the Star Wars: The Last Jedi disagreements that have resurfaced on Twitter and are consuming the known universe, I’m pretty sure the IP of Jumanji doesn’t stir as much heated debate. The original film from 1995 holds a special place in many a young man or woman’s hearts but the 2017 reboot, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, was such a departure from the source material and the original film that it couldn’t really offend anyone (right?).
The reboot, starring Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Jack Black, and Karen Gillan, had many laugh-out-loud moments and plenty of visual effects wizardry to keep the audience entertained, if not enchanted (the film made just under a billion worldwide) but was definitely a half-hour too long. No film in which Jack Black is eaten by a hippopotamus, Kevin Hart talks about his dick, and Nick Jonas acts should be longer than 90 minutes.
The newest addition of the Jumanji franchise, Jumanji: The Next Level, adds some new elements to the proceedings. For one, you’ve got the welcome additions of Danny DeVito, Danny Glover, and Awkwafina as new characters in the universe. And while their presence adds entirely new dimensions to the character dynamics and, especially in DeVito’s case, some much-needed soul, the filmmakers gave something else precedence over the new casting choices and any other changes made to the universe: cynicism.
It has been over a year since after the shy nerd Spencer (Hereditary’s Alex Wolff), jock Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain), social butterfly Bethany (Madison Iseman), and no-nonsense but kind Martha (Morgan Turner) were transported to Jumanji and become heroes. Now in college and separated by distance, the friends stay in constant touch and with a Christmas break approaching, plan to get together to spend some much needed time with each other.
However, while Fridge, Bethany, and Martha seem happy and content, Spencer has become isolated and lonely in New York, where he attends NYU. When he returns home he skips out on meeting with his friends and decides to reassemble the Jumanji game he helped destroy a year previous. As a result, he is sucked into the game again. His friends come looking for him, with the help of Spencer’s agitated grandfather Eddie (Danny DeVito) and Eddie’s estranged friend Milo (Danny Glover), and decide that the only way to get Spencer back is to go into the game themselves and rescue him, both from the game’s likely dangerous scenarios but from whatever funk has befallen Spencer.
Bethany is somehow left behind but, in her place, Eddie and Milo have entered the game. The cranky, New York accented Eddie ends up in the avatar of Dr. Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson), which is usually Spencer’s avatar. Fridge ends up in Bethany’s avatar, the portly Professor Shelly Oberon (Jack Black). The tall, slow-talking Milo ends up in the diminutive “Mouse” Finbar’s (Kevin Hart) avatar, which has more weaknesses than strengths, including the misfortune of blowing up when eating cake. Only Martha returns to her original Jumanji form as man-killer and expert dance fighter Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan).
Taken out of the jungle and into a mixture of dangerous landscapes, the newly formed team is tasked with not only finding Spencer, who is stuck within new avatar Ming Fleetfoot (Awkwafina), but with stopping Jurgen the Brutal (Rory McCann) and his marauders from plunging all of Jumanji into an endless drought by returning the stolen Falcon’s Heart jewel, which gives Jumanji its natural vibrancy. But can Eddie and Milo overcome their differences to help the team? And can Spencer’s friends figure out what ails him?
Not only does Jumanji: The Next Level repeat the crime of its origin film by being an unbearably long 123 minutes, but the cynical cash-grab feel to the proceedings prevents most of the undeniable charm from the first film to carry over to this one. While each cast member certainly has their moments, most of the goings-on are repeated gags, recycled plot points, and soulless action sequences (the lone exception being a wonderfully choreographed set piece set in an MC Escher-like obstacle course of rotating bridges).
Befitting a film that feels like it was rushed into production to capitalize on the first’s success, there seems to be no consistency in how the universe is constructed. The first film had a jungle theme and mostly stuck to it. The sequel has steam-punk airships, Game of Thrones-esque castles and baddies, Mad Max lite dune buggies, and such a kaleidoscopic set of locales that one can feel it all set within a green screen. Each action scene feels like padding to get to the next plot point which is fine if you, the viewer, are playing a videogame. The Next Level makes you feel trapped watching someone else handle the controls.
The film is not lacking in positives, however. Since Johnson, Hart, and Black have to alter their personalities to match the new cast additions and the plot demanded body swaps, we get to see some impressive acting chops from all involved. Johnson gives it his all mimicking DeVito and it mostly pays off. The guy isn’t a master thespian so his dedication to going over-the-top is welcome in a film about killer ostriches.
Gillan gets to have a more upfront role as the straight “man” since her counterparts are in such disarray. She carries the film well and is asked to do a lot of thankless material in service of the more outlandish moments. Stealing the show, however, is Hart, who embodies Danny Glover to the syllable. It is marvelous to watch.
Seeing Black as a tough dude is fun but his “Bethany” personality is sorely missed. Also, Awkwafina, at one point in the movie, has to switch personalities as well and let’s just say that while the young actress can play subtlety well (see her amazing turn in The Farewell), when she is asked to go over-the-top, she has no ceiling and it gets immensely irritating.
Without spoiling anything, the emotional arc of Jumanji: The Next Level relies on this over-the-top Awkwafina to deliver on some of the more schmaltzy dramatic moments directly to a horse. It has to be seen to be believed. But maybe not right away, or at all, because The Next Level can easily be skipped.