Jumanji: The Next Level is the sequel to 2017’s surprise smash hit Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, which operated as the spiritual sequel/reboot of the famous 1995 Robin Williams film, simply titled Jumanji. In the series’ previous installment, our main four characters (Spencer, Martha, Bethany, and Fridge) were sucked into an old video game cartridge as their chosen characters’ avatars after getting bored in detention and deciding to waste some time. Stuck on that perilous adventure with only three lives each to make it through, they managed to eventually beat the game, return to their real-world lives, and grow as people along the way. Now, having gone their separate ways for a little while, the gang is getting back together for the holidays, and for reasons yet to be discovered, Spencer has disappeared. After re-discovering the Jumanji cartridge open in Spencer’s basement when they go to talk to him, the gang suspects he went re-entered the game, and hatches a plan to go get him back. But not everything is the same as last time, and before they can even pick their characters, they’re sucked back in again, albeit with a twist: the Dr. Smolder Bravestone character (Dwayne Johnson) is now inhabited by Spencer’s grandfather (Danny DeVito), and Kevin Hart’s zoologist character is not Fridge, but instead Milo Walker (Danny Glover), an old associate of Spencer’s grandfather. (Fridge inhabits the Jack Black avatar this time around). With these new complications to deal with, Martha (Karen Gillan as Ruby Roundhouse) and Fridge need to lead the charge on the search for Spencer, hopefully find him, and beat this more challenging version of the game, even if it might cost them a great deal more than before. This film also stars Awkwafina, Madison Iseman, Morgan Turner, Ser’Darius Blain, Alex Wolff, and Rory McCann.
When the last Jumanji film was released at the tail end of 2017, no one knew exactly what to expect. It had decent enough trailers, and a few laughs going for it, but the specter of the original 1995 Jumanji hovered over it like a cloud, and no one knew whether this new version of the material would honor that film or tarnish its legacy by trying to modernize all of its elements for younger viewers. Competing against Rian Johnson’s brilliant sci-fi blockbuster, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, by opening mere 5 days after that film’s release, was almost considered studio suicide for a project of this nature, and Welcome to the Jungle had a tall order to fill when it came to the box office miracle it would need just to break even. Almost 5 months and $962.1 million later, it was safe to say audiences greatly welcomed and enjoyed the new Jumanji project, which was also critically well-received, with many calling it a fun, zany action-adventure film with really solid performances, and a video game mechanic that only added to its comedic flare, imperfect though the film was. It had what we in this industry call “very long legs” (meaning it stayed in the box office Top 5 for an unexpectedly long time), so when the inevitable sequel was announced, the question was not “will this make money,” but rather “how are they going to justify doing this again after the way the last movie ended?” The answer’s not quite as compelling as one might have hoped, but that doesn’t mean the movie itself isn’t still really good fun.
There’s hardly anything new about this sequel apart from the added video game levels and some avatar swapping among our main characters, so don’t expect to be blown away by anything you see, but the core strength of the Jumanji franchise as it stands now is the interplay between all the various characters doing different riffs on other actors, and this film has so much fun with that, it can sometimes go a little overboard. All the performances are really good, but it’s The Rock and Kevin Hart that get to do the most this time around with they DeVito and Glover impressions, and this film (perhaps more than any other) is easily the best showcase for Swayne Johnson not just being a charismatic screen presence, but a legitimately great actor in his own right. Hart, likewise, demonstrates that he’s able to be in movies where he’s not just playing a riff on himself, and make that work to its full advantage. This might actually be the best performance of his I’ve ever seen, and while that’s not saying a lot, it is a significant step for the comedian-turned-actor to make in his movie career. The same applies to Awkwafina, who gets to show a lot more range than we’ve seen before (for reasons I won’t spoil here), and proves herself more than worthy of an Oscar nomination (for The Farewell, not this movie) that she may not even get. The scene stealer in the last film ended up being Jack Black as the teenage Bethany, but while the actor continues to demonstrate that he’s pretty much down for anything, his impression of Fridge feels somewhat lackluster as a whole, and not getting to play Bethany until a while into the film ultimately does a disservice to Black’s skills, present though they still are. Oh, also, Karen Gillan is great in the movie once again, and all the new video game stuff in the film works really well too, but if you saw the trailers, you already knew that.
The Next Level does ultimately suffer from the law of diminishing returns, though, not just as a sequel to Welcome to the Jungle, but on its own merits. Obviously, the notion of the video game mechanics and all the challenges that comes with carry a little less novelty this time around since it’s essentially the same thing as last time, but even the narrative of the film could have done with a little bit of tightening up. The movie feels too long at some points, like it’s meandering before it can get to the next scene because hey, aren’t these characters fun, so it lets the actors riff off one another for a bit longer than necessary. Sometimes a joke will be told once or twice, and it’s a funny one, but then the writers just keep repeating it over and over again, and it can slow the movie down a good deal, sometimes to the effect of making it feel as if the movie just doesn’t have any other jokes to tell besides “Danny Glover talks slowly,” or “Danny DeVito loves playing Dwayne Johnson.” It’s fun to watch, but when those scenes happen, most of the momentum is sucked out of the film, and it has to be put back in by introducing a new level to the game or plot point that could have come in about 5 minutes sooner.
Truth be told, I don’t really have a whole lot else to say in this review, especially if I’m going to keep it spoiler-free, but it’s not exactly a complicated film to explain, and you know what you’re going to get if you’ve seen any of the marketing for it. I’m not sure it will win over anyone who didn’t like the last film, but it certainly won’t alienate those who did. Odds are, since this review is going up on a Sunday, you’ve already decided whether you’re going to see Jumanji: The Next Level or not (and you may have seen it already), but nonetheless, for those still on the fence, while the film isn’t quite as good as Welcome to the Jungle, it very nearly gets there, and is yet another fun, zany entry into a franchise that had no right to come back as successfully as it did. It’s partially subject to the law of diminishing returns, but there’s still more than enough here to enjoy, and if nothing else about the film sticks out, at least we can all now agree that Dwayne Johnson is a legitimately great actor on his own merits and not just his movie star presence.
I’m giving “Jumanji: The Next Level” a 7.6/10
- The Friendly Film Fan
Film critic in my free time. Film enthusiast in my down time. Writer for Bitesize Breakdown.