Dir: Jake Kasdan
In 2017, I don’t know that I’d thought about Jumanji for 15 years or more. It was pleasant enough when I was 13, but it wasn’t a film I’d carried with me, and so I wasn’t especially interested in a reboot/sequel. I ended up seeing Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle only because I had a gap in my day and had seen already everything else on offer at the nearest cinema. It was a huge surprise; not just a fun and often amusing adventure, but a surprisingly interesting and original twist on a coming of age narrative. It also felt finished. By the end, the experience of being their game avatars had left an impression on all the real world teens who embodied them, their lives had moved on and there was no sense that they would need those avatars back in their lives. This is one of many reasons why lightning doesn’t strike twice with Jumanji: The Next Level.
Picking up more or less in real time, The Next Level finds Spencer (Alex Wolff), Martha (Morgan Turner), Bethany (Madison Iseman) and Fridge (Ser'Darius Blain) coming home from their first year of college for the holidays. When Spencer doesn’t show up for their get together, the others go looking for him and soon realise he may have gone back into Jumanji. They head back in to the game, but Spencer’s grandpa Eddie (Danny DeVito) and his old business partner Milo (Danny Glover) also end up sucked in, while Bethany is left at home. Inside the game, Martha is back in her old avatar of Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan), but otherwise things have changed. Fridge is now Shelly Oberon (Jack Black) and Eddie and Milo have become Dr Smoulder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson) and Mouse Finbar (Kevin Hart) respectively. The group must go on another quest to save Jumanji, but also find Spencer and get themselves home.
The Next Level is the film I expected Welcome to the Jungle to be. The problems are evident from the start. While it painted in broad strokes and clichés, the previous film did at least spend some time setting up the characters and relationships before entering the game. This time, Kasdan and co-writers Jeff Pinkner and Scott Rosenberg spend a little time updating us on where the gang from the last movie are now, but just a couple of minutes introducing Eddie and Milo’s relationship, meaning that we’re not all that invested in them by the time we get into the game.
Once the action moves into the game world, other problems manifest. The switching around of characters and avatars has the potential to be fun, but it largely doesn’t work. Fridge was always the least developed of the real world characters, and Jack Black struggles to find much to do with him. It doesn’t help that his schtick is largely the same as what Fridge had to deal with in game in the last film: an underpowered character whose strengths only become clear in very specific situations. Gillan is comfortable as Martha/Ruby, but is too often reduced to explaining everything to Eddie and Milo and, given her avatar’s status as ‘killer of men’, has far too little action.
To his credit, Kevin Hart captures Danny Glover’s essence nicely, he nails the voice and the rhythm and manages to give a sense of Mouse being embodied by a fundamentally different character this time out. It’s a pity that Milo is a one joke character, his slow way of talking putting the characters in more peril is a gag that hits once, but not over and over again. Dwayne Johnson, usually a presence of such towering charisma that he can make middling (and silly) projects like Skyscraper and Rampage much more fun than they would be in other hands, seems adrift here. Johnson was great in the previous film, as he played against type to embody a nervous teen, gaining many laughs from the contrast between his physical presence and his performance. We don’t see those layers while he’s playing Eddie. Johnson never gets Danny DeVito’s rhythms down, and because of that he sticks out against Hart’s more detailed (if broad) work. Johnson has some fun with the glee when Eddie discovers how strong Bravestone is, but the repetitive gags about Eddie never learning the rules of being inside a video game become tiresome in short order and he can’t make the weak material stick this time.
The plot of the in game adventure wasn’t a hugely important part of the last film, but here it is even more perfunctory, which is a problem given an early attempt to give Bravestone’s character a personal grudge against the villain. This could have been interesting, a way to show the game taking over at a certain point, with Bravestone’s designed in-game personality coming out and swallowing Eddie, even if only briefly. Unfortunately, nothing so interesting happens, indeed nothing at all happens in reference to this reveal, meaning it adds up to nothing more than an excuse to see Johnson in a silly moustache.
Happily, there are some fun action sequences. The early dune buggy chase is solid, as is a sequence involving suspension bridges and mandrills. Seeing Gillan cut loose late in the film (even if it’s a beat for beat recreation of a scene from the first film) is as entertaining as ever. It would be nice to see her headline her own action-comedy, even the opening sequence of the otherwise awful Stuber suggested she’d carry it off well.
A body-switching idea may be contrived, but having Karen Gillan play a character other than Martha, however briefly, leads to some of the film’s biggest laughs, and she emerges as one of the film’s MVPs, along with franchise newcomer Awkwafina. Like most of the others, the Farewell star has two characters to play and, while she has to paint in broad strokes as a function of her screen time, she bests most of the rest of the cast in capturing the basic essence of those characters, she’s also the only one to pay much attention to the physicality of embodying another actor, particularly in her second role. This isn’t her best work, but it’s a fine demonstration of why she’s become a star so quickly.
Jumanji: The Next Level suffers from fairly typical sequel problems. It’s trying to do the same thing but differently but the things that are different often don’t work and those that are the same don’t have the same punch the second time around. All that said, and as much of a miss as this is, I’m actually anxious to see the sequel trailed in the credits scene, which looks to be the film I’d hoped they’d make this time out.★★