Quite a few moviegoers will go into Jumanji: The Next Level hoping it might end a year of flat franchise sequels. Those who go in with such elevated expectations will surely be disappointed, but maybe not entirely.
2017’s Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle was surprisingly, even shockingly, entertaining with a few scenes so funny I still chuckle just thinking about them. It was also successful enough that a sequel was quickly greenlit by Sony. At times, it’s fairly obvious that director and co-writer Jake Kasdan should have been given more time to develop the idea for this sequel rather than rushing in with hopes to recreate the fleeting magic that came with the first film’s formula.
This time, Spencer (Alex Wolff) is back home from college, but life at NYU hasn’t been all he hoped. He misses his days of adventuring as Dr. Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson), and when Spencer’s friends, including former girlfriend Martha (Morgan Turner)– they’re on a break – discover he’s gone back to Jumanji, they follow suit. Something goes wrong, and Spencer’s grandfather Eddie (Danny De Vito) and old business partner Milo (Danny Glover) also get pulled into the game as avatars, making it harder for them to find Spencer, beat the game’s latest menace and get home.
At its core, Jumanji: The Next Level is essentially the same movie as Welcome to the Jungle. Sure, there’s a new adventure, a new villain and new goals to accomplish this time around, but most of the humor this time revolves around Johnson and Hart acting and talking like cranky old men that don’t understand the concept of being in a video game. They’re both very amusing doing these characterizations, but the schtick does start wearing thin after a while.
When it comes down to it, the cast still excels at elevating the material with Jack Black still the best at portraying the teenage characters playing his avatar, first with his impression of the younger athlete Fridge (Ser-Darius Blain), which could have been seriously problematic if Black wasn’t so good. Awkwafina joins the cast as a new fairly one-dimensional character in the game, and she really isn’t given very much to do, which is a damn shame. On the other hand, Karen Gillan’s Ruby Roundhouse is still kick-ass, and the best part of the movie, especially if you’re a Tomb Raider fan curious as to why they’ve never been able to get Lara Craft right in an actual Tomb Raider movie.
The chance to do a sequel allows Kasdan to take his cast into different environments, creating a number of impressive set pieces laden with CG creatures… again, just like the first movie. Even so, it’s still hard to deny that the general plot of this follow-up game just feels forced with an antagonist so one-dimensional that the stakes don’t seem particularly high, even as most of the characters have only one life left.
It’s probably best not to think too much about the fact that the vintage Jumanji video game from the first movie has been sitting in a briefcase in Spencer’s basement for a number of years, so how could it have been upgraded with a new adventure to play? It’s easy to set that fact aside, because the premise is so fantastical, it was never meant to be taken seriously enough to consider this.
More than once, the movie gets a little too sentimental as it deals with Spencer and Margo’s relationship, as well as how Eddie and Milo’s friendship was hurt by business decisions. The thing is that the introduction of De Vito and Glover adds so much to the movie that some might wish to see more of them together, as opposed to Johnson and Hart’s impressions.
These aspects just make it more apparent that this sequel is nothing but a cash grab, with nothing more to say. (Note: If you feel inclined, stay through the end credits for a hint at where a third movie in this franchise might go, although anyone who saw the 1995 Jumanji probably won’t need to see that movie.) Although it’s hard not to gripe about the number of lame sequels this year, one can’t fault studios that hope to make back their money by investing in what they think people will want based on past successes. In this case, they should have taken a cue from Zombieland: Double Tap and put more time into development.
Ultimately, Jumanji: The Next Level doesn’t have nearly as many solid laughs as the first movie, and it gets stale as the few new jokes offered are rehashed over and over. And yet, the cast still finds a way to keep things entertaining despite the weaker story.
Those who enjoyed the first movie probably won’t feel like their time was completely wasted, yet there’s no question that the first movie was far better, and the sequel lacks its magic and flair.
Jumanji: The Next Level opens on Friday, December 13 with previews Thursday night.