Jumanji: The Next Level (2019)
Director: Jake Kasdan
Screenwriters: Jake Kasdan, Jeff Pinkner, Scott Rosenberg
Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Karen Gillan, Kevin Hart, Jack Black, Danny DeVito, Danny Glover, Alex Wolff, Morgan Turner, Ser’Darius Blain, Madison Iseman
Two years ago Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle was released and it was a pleasant surprise. Far from just another nostalgic re-do, it was zippy, quippy and unexpectedly full of heart. You of course missed the late great Robin Williams as Adam Parish but soon grew to love these new characters played by a cast having the time of their lives and couldn’t wait to meet up with them again. Jumanji: The Next Level has more of what works and also a fair amount of what didn’t, and still doesn’t.
After their return from the video game world of Jumanji, Spencer (Alex Wolff), Martha (Morgan Turner), Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain) and Bethany (Madison Iseman) get on with their lives. Unfortunately Spencer’s college life isn’t what he wants it to be and he’s tempted to boot back up the damaged magical game cartridge again to control his chosen avatar Smoulder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson). When his friends come looking for him, they and two unexpected new players (Danny DeVito and Danny Glover) enter a very different Jumanji world.
If the previous film was about learning to brave enough to be the version of yourself hiding below the surface, this one’s about accepting all aspects of who you are – the good, the bad and the boring. Real life intrudes on your free time, which is why escapism in any form is all the more important to retain your sanity.
They really commit to the video game conceit again. Regular players of action-adventure games like the “Tomb Raider” or “Uncharted” series will recognise the film’s world as a typical expanded game sequel, with a more elaborate plot and challenges, and with our heroes progressing from a jungle level to a desert level to an ice level and so on. The game has certainly changed, with a brand new quest, new characters to meet and different players inhabiting the avatars and changing their personalities as a result.
Martha is the only original player controlling her chosen avatar Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan) so her experience makes her the de facto party leader, and it’s great to see Gillan get to play front-and-centre for a change. Kevin Hart pulls out an uncanny Danny Glover impression, but Dwayne Johnson’s Danny DeVito mostly amounts to him pulling a face and going “Ah?” every few minutes. There’s an extra big laugh to be had from Dwayne Johnson in a surprise blink-and-you’ll-miss-it second role as well, so look out for that. I’m not really sure if Jack Black acting like Fridge really works, or whether the impression itself constitutes as “problematic”, but rest assured everyone will not stay in the same avatars they started in for the duration.
Awkwafina (The Farewell) is a great addition to the ensemble, continuing her run of eclectic scene-stealing roles as new player character Ming, here really selling that there’s an awkward teenager at the controls of her avatar for much of the runtime, though at one point she gets to be DeVito as well, doing a much more convincing job than Johnson in the process.
What the last film really lacked was a great villain, and things aren’t much better here. Game of Thrones‘ Rory McCann does his best to inject menace into Jurgan the Brutal, and amusingly can make the man formally known as The Rock look small when they go head-to-head, but he’s probably only in the film for about fifteen minutes total and you’re crying out for something more going on behind his luxurious beard. They should just cut their losses and get Jonathan Hyde back next time.
The action is a skillfully put together series of frenetic chases, tangles with aggressive wildlife and comedy fight scenes with a satisfying rhythm and plentiful gags overriding an occasional CGI sheen. There’s also some well-timed and entertaining callbacks peppered throughout. You could probably do without so many old-man-is-forgetful or old-man-is-deaf jokes but far more of the comedy lands than doesn’t.
We still don’t know what happens to someone in the Jumanji game who loses all their lives. Mortality is touched upon in the film, perhaps inevitably for a film exploring alternatives to real life and featuring two characters in their seventies. Maybe we’ll get the answer next time in the third film of this trilogy that is explicitly set up. In the meantime, it has been nice to catch up with these characters on another fun, if a little drawn-out romp through Jumanji.