Directed by Jake Kasdan. Starring Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Jack Black, Karen Gillan, Danny DeVito, Danny Glover, Awkwafina, Madison Iseman, Alex Wolff, Morgan Turner, Ser’Darius Blain.
The Plot: Spencer (Alex Wolff) and Martha (Morgan Turner) are taking a break in their relationship. When Bethany (Madison Iseman) returns home for Christmas, she tries to get the gang back together. However, Spencer has other ideas and withdraws into his basement to repair the Jumanji game and go back in – possibly for the future. The trio decide to venture forth once again to find him. However, complications ensue when their avatars (played once again by Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Jack Black and Karen Gillan) don’t match up. Instead, there are two extra passengers along for the ride – Spencer’s ailing grandfather Eddie (Danny DeVito) and his former business partner and friend Milo (Danny Glover). The game tasks them to find a precious jewel to restore light to the world of Jumanji. However, the stakes have been upped on this level…
The Verdict: Nobody was expecting much from Jumanji: Welcome To The Jungle two years ago. It was a continuation of the 1995 Robin Williams film, but given a videogame makeover with a retro 1990s feel. Was it just a cynical cash-in on a fondly-remembered childhood film… or was it something fresh, invigorating and better than it had any right to be? The answer was clearly in the latter camp, turning it into a delightful pre-Christmas surprise. A lot of that was down to the laugh-out-loud funny script and lively performances from the actors playing the in-game avatars. After boffo box office, producer and star Dwayne Johnson promised a sequel to audiences and here it is in the shapely form of Jumanji: The Next Level. Once again, our teenage characters are sucked back into the riotous world of Jumanji for another challenging jaunt through dangerous territory. But is it more of the same?
The overall impression of this sequel is that it’s like an old videogame that you enjoyed playing before and dug out to replay for two hours. It’s fun replaying it, but familiarity sets in as you know when to expect the character beats and the game triggers that bring a threat coming around the corner which you already know how to defeat. It doesn’t feel as fresh the second time around. The same goes with The Next Level, as it essentially replays itself. There’s the same set-up as before, a quest to find a magical jewel which will restore balance to the world of Jumanji blah blah blah. Once again, there’s a one-note villain that is just there to snarl and look threatening but doesn’t have much else to offer. Casting Rory McCann AKA The Hound as a wild-haired barbarian baddie is hardly against-type casting either, but he does bring some welcome anarchy to the proceedings.
Where returning co-writer and director Jake Kasdan does score points is in the character development and relationships between Spencer, his grandfather and his friends. There’s a certain joy in watching the diminutive Danny DeVito play a grouchy old man complaining about getting old and then enjoying inhabiting the man mountain that is Dwayne Johnson. Once again, the actors playing the avatars give the best performances here so that you can sense the real-life characters inhabiting them. The sort-of body swap element is given a new spin here, allowing the characters to swap bodies to often comedic effect. The way the actors skillfully adjust their performances depending on who is playing them is a joy to watch, with Johnson showing no shame and Black once again stealing the show. There’s also a nice line in valuing the people around you – a very Christmassy message.
Kasdan also scores points in the kinetic action sequences, staging a rope bridge chase over multiple platforms while our characters are chased by monkeys or an attack of aggressive ostriches. Those entertaining sequences gloss over the formulaic structure of the plot, but not enough to keep it at bay. If only Kasdan had injected a bit more madness and let the colourful Awkawfina off the chain then it could have been edgy and distinguished itself from its predecessor. There’s a brief hint of that in the closing credits teaser, but it’s a bit too late and is more like an afterthought. Maybe for the third film, if there’s to be more. Another film wouldn’t be unwelcome, but it needs to do something different or risk someone hitting the Escape button early on. For now though, Jumanji: The Next Level will do for a fun family frolic into this videogame world once again.