Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle was a big surprise hit two years ago. It took an established franchise that many had fond memories of, and evolved the concept to something a bit more modern. In the process, they created a fun and entertaining adventure that audiences turned out for in droves.
However, like most video game sequels, director Jake Kasdan's Jumanji: The Next Level, is little more than an iteration on the successful formula than another evolution. It still has "fun and entertaining" going for it, but in a way that feels much more familiar and safe, rather than surprising.
In the film, it's been a couple years since the events of Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, and our four (non-avatar) heroes from the first movie have moved on to college. They have remained friends, though, Spencer (Alex Wolff) and Martha (Morgan Turner) are currently "on a break" from the relationship they started in the last film. While most of the foursome appears to have adjusted well to their new lives, Spencer has not.
Kevin Hart doing a Danny Glover impression is so good the movie actually takes a step down when the gag ends.
When Spencer returns home for the holidays he finds his grandfather Eddie (Danny DeVito) has moved in to recover from surgery. He confides in young Spencer that life only gets worse as you get older, and it's after this that we discover that Spencer actually saved the damaged Jumanji video game from the previous film, and has repaired it enough to go back to the world of Jumanji — as place where he thinks he will be happier. When his friends discover what he has done, they go in after him, inadvertently dragging Eddie and his visiting "friend," Milo (Danny Glover), along with them.
Because the Jumanji game is damaged, and because the characters jumping into the game aren't the same as last time, the avatar-to-human association gets a bit mixed up. Grandpa Eddie becomes Dwayne Johnson's Dr. Smolder Bravestone; Milo gets Kevin Hart's Franklin "Mouse" Finbar, footballer Fridge (Ser'Darius Blain) gets to be Jack Black's Professor Sheldon "Shelly" Oberon; and Martha returns to the body of Karen Gillan's Ruby Roundhouse. Changing things up this time around, however, at various points the video game avatar actors all get to play multiple characters, giving them an opportunity to stretch their acting skills a bit. Johnson, Hart, Black and Karen Gillan acting against type was part of the charm of the last Jumanji, and the fact that they get to do so again but without simply repeating the same characters is one of the things that works best with Jumanji: The Next Level.
Dwayne Johnson as DeVito and Kevin Hart doing his best Danny Glover impression are given the most time to shine since they're the new players, and it works for the most part. Kevin Hart is the particular highlight this time around. In fact, the elder characters' relationship, portrayed through the game avatars, actually makes up the emotional core of the story. It's nice to see a movie deal with the struggles of older people, even if they have to be portrayed by younger people in order for us to see it.
Awkwafina is a welcome addition to the cast, but feels underutilized.
Of course, the subtitle is The Next Level, and it wouldn't be much fun if we were literally just playing the same game again would it? Jumanji has changed, as is its own way audiences get to experience the sequel to the previous game, where the characters we know are given a new quest to stop a warlord (Rory McCann) from conquering the land. The environment has also changed, as the new movie moves past the jungle to give us both desert and mountain levels. Luckily there's no water level, because nobody likes water levels.
A new game also means new characters. Awkwafina joins the cast as the rogue Ming Fleetfoot to help deal with the larger number of player characters this time around. Unfortunately, she largely feels like she's tacked on. She's no less funny than the rest of the team, in fact, she's better at playing Danny DeVito than Dwayne Johnson is, but it feels like a lot more could have been done with her role.
Video game sequels rarely revolutionize their gameplay for fear of alienating the fans of the first game, and Jumanji: The Next Level feels like it has taken the video game sequel idea a little too close to heart. It feels like sequences from the last movie have simply been re-purposed for the new one, with little to set them apart. The rhino stampede from the last movie becomes an ostrich stampede this time around. Dwayne Johnson gets another over-the-top fight sequence for no reason beyond, it would seem, the feeling that the new game, er, movie, needed one. It feels like the story is beholden to its mechanics. That's justifiable in video games, not film.
Video game sequels ultimately give you the experience you enjoyed over again, and so does Jumanji: The Next Level.
But video game sequels, more often than not, work, precisely because what the fans want is more of the same with a few new bells and whistles thrown in. They liked it last time for a reason, after all. Jumanji: The Next Level certainly does remind one why they enjoyed Welcome to the Jungle, assuming, of course, that one did. Chemistry between the core actors is still great. The jokes are still funny. The action, when it's showing us something new, is still exciting. The movie about a video game is still better than nearly every movie based on actually video games.
Hopefully if we see another Jumanji (and a mid-credits sequence teases that we might), it will find a way to do something truly new with the concept. If you wanted more Jumanji, then The Next Level will be everything you're looking for, but while a game sequel might take the opportunity to polish its mechanics for a more enjoyable experience, the movie just reminds you that you played this one before. It's still fun, but unless you're a diehard fan, you might want to wait for the bargain bin.
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