When the first images for the first Jumanji film (well, the first one in this series, not the Robin Williams one) landed people were distraught. The picture didn’t look much like anything good and was replete with nothing but cliches. Turns out that was all part of the game the movie was playing and what we got — despite Rick’s opinion — was an adventure movie bouyed by the strength of a stellar cast doing the opposite of their thing.
See, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle was an OK action flick but what made it work was every character playing against type and doing it well. It was one of those rare blockbusters that brought heart along with it and that was entirely because of its cast nailing their out-of-character roles. The question for Jumanji: The Next Level is whether or not they can do it again.
Jumanji: The Next Level
Director: Jake Kasdan
Release Date: December 13, 2019
One of the more brilliant aspects of the two new Jumanji movies is that the plot literally doesn’t matter. Because the story is about a group of kids who get sucked into a video game the story is literally get from point A to B in the most cliche way possible and that is once again the premise here. After the events of the first film the kids are now all off at different colleges or helping the world but they’re coming home for the Holidays. Spencer, however, feels like he’s lost himself (again) and in a bought of depression reenters the Jumanji game in order to take on the role of Dr. Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson). That triggers the other three friends to head into the game after him but they accidentally suck in Spencer’s grandpa Eddie (Danny DeVito) and his friend Milo (Danny Glover).
This is where the fun, and reclaiming of the charm of the first film, really happen. Instead of everyone landing in the same bodies Eddie finds himself as Dr. Bravestone and Milo now in the shoes of zoologist Franklin Finbar (Kevin Hart). Fridge is now in Professor Shelly Oberon’s (Jack Black) and Martha is the only person that lands back in her original avatar of Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillian). What this results in is Dwayne Johnson and Kevin Hart acting like two old men for most of the film and it is marvelous. I’m not sure it’s the finest acting ever done but both Hart and Johnson are hilarious as they blunder through a videogame situation neither of them understand. The pair make the movie work and once again its the charm of the cast that pulls the film together.
That’s even more so true for Gillian, whose Ruby Roundhouse takes on the lead role of the film thanks to the fact that Spencer doesn’t show up until the second act and is stuck in the body of a female, ninja spy played wonderfully by Awkwafina. It’s a great switch that allows Hart and Johnson to play for laughs while Gillian, and to a lesser extent Black, progress the plot. It’s also a bold move since it means less screen time for Johnson, who is obviously the biggest pull of the cast. It pays off in spades though, with the movie balancing an expanding cast very well and still supplying some ridiculous action.
In their quest to return yet another gem to yet another place the quartet (and eventual septet, including a horse) deals with a massive herd of deadly ostriches, a monkey attack on some hanging bridges that would only be found in a video game, and a giant blimp battle that’s straight out of Uncharted. Kasdan has a surprisingly good eye for this kind of action but even more impressively keeps the comedy rolling throughout it. It’s just fun to watch and the pace never slows down, though the movie does feel a titch too long at 123 minutes.
Part of that may stem from the movie’s biggest issue, which is the retread of the Spencer/Martha relationship. Spencer, in what can only be described as being a total douche, feels bad about not being the best at everything and basically ghosts Martha. His depression puts everyone’s life at risk but the interplay between him and Martha to fix their relationship is so light it feels forced. At some point they make up but it doesn’t feel earned. Contrast this with a wonderful story between Eddie and Milo, two old friends who had a falling out, and it’s hard to take what should be the main thrust of the film as anything but whining.
Jumanji: The Next Level takes what the first film did and turns it on its head, relying on the charms of its stars to once again deliver. Thankfully, they all do. The movie may not feel like it has all the same heart but it is definitely full of the same kind of fun and humor that made the first one work. The end result is that rare sequel that is as good, if not better, than the original.