Jumanji: The Next Level

Jumanji: The Next Level

2019, PG-13, 114 min. Directed by Jake Kasdan. Starring Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Karen Gillan, Jack Black, Danny DeVito, Danny Glover, Morgan Turner, Madison Iseman, Ser'Darius Blain, Alex Wolff, Rory McCann, Nick Jonas, Awkwafina.

REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., Dec. 13, 2019

Once in a while, a franchise comes along that you had no idea that you wanted, and were convinced was going to be a terrible idea, but you end up falling in love with anyway. Remember when everyone wondered why on earth Universal would let Chazz from Airheads front a remake of a horror classic, and we ended up with Brendan Fraser's wild-ride take on The Mummy? So it was with Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, which dared to tread on the overgrown path of Robin Williams' beloved 1995 adventure-comedy and turned out to be a rip-roaring romp on its own terms.

The success means the inevitable sequel, and much as The Mummy Returns was fun but not as fun as the first film, so Jumanji: The Next Level doesn't quite have the same spark as Jake Kasdan's second entry into the four-film series (yes, we are counting stealth sequel Zathura). It's actually such a direct sequel to Kasdan's last run, the 2017 soft reboot, that you may well benefit from a rewatch, but the gist remains the same. Play the game, get zapped into the magical jungle realm of Jumanji in the shape of your in-game avatar, and solve a mystery to get back to your real life – all the while dodging monstrous creatures and NPCs who exist only to forward the plot. But while Welcome to the Jungle had more than a dash of arcade runners and console cartridge classics like Pitfall, The Next Level is more than ever like a LucasArts point-and-click adventure in its sly comedic tone and puzzle-solving thinking.

But wait, you'll be asking: Didn't the game get smashed at the end of the last film? Blame mopey Spencer Gilpin (Wolff), miserable in college in New York, and feeling like a failure compared to his high school friends – amiable jock Fridge (Blain), cheerleader with a heart of gold Bethany (Iseman), and his now ex, Martha (Turner). He rebuilds it, hoping to get back into the in-game hunky frame of Dr. Smolder Bravestone (Johnson), so it's up to the rest of the gang to follow him in and get him out. Only this time, the transition is not so smooth. Martha is once again Ruby Roundhouse (Gillan, the comedic and action anchor this time around), but Fridge gets dumped into Bethany's old avatar, fusty professor Sheldon "Shelly" Oberon. Bethany is nowhere to be seen, and somehow the machine dragged in Spencer's grandpa (DeVito, having a whale of a time) and his old business partner Milo (Glover), who take over as Bravestone and Fridge's old avatar, Mouse (Hart), respectively. If that wasn't chaos enough, Martha and Fridge quickly realize that this isn't just a chance to speed run through the game again, but a completely new environment, with a desert level, an ice fortress, and a Zanzibar-esque oasis of crooks and reprobates.

As with the first film, there's never a moment without a laugh or a thrill, and they're always well executed. Unfortunately, the script by Kasdan, Jeff Pinkner, and Scott Rosenberg can't work out whether to advance the story of Jumanji the game itself or dig deeper into Jumanji the world, and instead just ends up with a lot of very fun set-pieces. Gillan leaps back into Ruby with gusto, grasping that sense of awkward Martha still relishing being this much cooler, while Black never seems to quite enjoy channeling Fridge as much as he did Bethany. Of course Johnson is game to play DeVito's brand of sleazy surly aging, but this time it's Kevin Hart who absolutely steals the show as the quite possibly senile Milo. Great comedy performances rarely get the applause they should, but here you always feel Glover's befuddled version of the character staring out from behind those eyes. His slow, rambling delivery is the source of some of the best laughs in the film, and he undoubtedly provides some excellent tension as the team hunts down the real Spencer.

It's just the greater story that seems a little flimsy. There's a gem to chase, in the hands of ill-defined villain Jurgen the Brutal (McCann), but he's no Van Pelt. Nick Jonas is back briefly as flyboy Alex, with more to do but less engagement in the bigger story, and that's representative of the mess of plot points and supporting characters that never really go anywhere, and often disappear just after they've started being fun (Awkwafina as cat burglar Ming may be the sole exception). True, the level designs are fun this time around, especially a sequence involving swinging bridges and giant mandrills, but Jumanji: The Next Level feels like a BioShock 2 when we were hoping for BioShock Infinite.

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Jumanji: The Next Level, Jake Kasdan, Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Karen Gillan, Jack Black, Danny DeVito, Danny Glover, Morgan Turner, Madison Iseman, Ser'Darius Blain, Alex Wolff, Rory McCann, Nick Jonas, Awkwafina

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