Jake Kasdan’s followup to the surprisingly fun 2017 sequel tweaks the code but ends up glitchy.
It’s easy to underestimate journeyman comedy directors like Jake Kasdan, but his career is filled with charming, under-the-radar gems like Freaks and Geeks, and the 2008 music biopic spoof Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story. All that goodwill finally paid off with 2017’s Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, a big-budget remake of a ‘90s movie about the deadly perils of playing board games. It was way more fun and emotionally complex than it had any right to be, and ended up grossing over 950 million worldwide. Now comes the inevitable sequel, Jumanji: The Next Level, which plays out more like the cash grab people assumed the first would be. But still, it’s packed with enough fun, witty moments to not be a waste of time, despite a few questionable story choices.
This time, the gang from the previous film — Spencer (Alex Wolff), Martha (Morgan Turner), Bethany (Madison Iseman), and Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain) — are now out of high school, but still struggling to figure out who they are when they aren’t playing characters in a cursed video game. Spencer, especially, misses being the strong, brooding Dr. Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) as he struggles to get by at NYU. He misses him so much that, when the four friends plan a reunion back in their hometown, he decides a better idea would be to run back inside the scary, dangerous video game. His buddies (who are much better friends than I am) decide to rescue him, finding themselves back in Jumanji on another epic adventure.
To its credit, The Next Level does its level best to avoid just repeating the same formula as the previous film; now, Kasdan has thrown 75-year-old Danny DeVito and 73-year-old Danny Glover into a huge, kid-friendly blockbuster. DeVito plays Spencer’s grandfather Eddie (essentially a kid-friendly Frank from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia), who stays with him and his mother following an injury. Glover plays Milo, an estranged business partner of Eddie who stops by to make amends before finding themselves sucked into the video game along with the kids. In an additional twist, the new players don’t get to pick their avatars, which means Eddie now controls Bravestone and Glover slides into the diminutive body of zoologist Franklin “Mouse” Finbar (Kevin Hart).
What made the previous Jumanji film work was that it had a charming Breakfast Club heart in an action-adventure body. This sequel swaps The Breakfast Club out for Grumpy Old Men, which doesn’t work as well, especially when the movie tries to do both at the same time.
…plays out more like the cash grab people assumed the first would be.
The idea of aging bodies finding new life (three lives, to be exact) in a video game can be worth exploring, and the film sometimes hits deceptively sad notes on it thanks to some tender moments between Johnson and Hart. But it bumbles it by not knowing how much time to spend with them, and also sticking poor Glover into a horse body for big swaths of the story.
Still, as in the last one, watching actors playing video game characters while also being played by the real-life characters is a delightful treat. Johnson doing his best DeVito and Hart nailing Glover’s slow cadence is by far one of the film’s highlights and a neat way to allow two stars locked into their existing personas to stretch a bit.
The rest of the cast, including the returning Karen Gillan and Jack Black (and Awkwafina as the newest avatar, a cat burglar named Ming) are also having a blast with the material, even if some of the body-switching gets a little cringe-worthy. It’s like watching an all-star basketball team that plays no defense, but it’s still fun to watch them throw down some alley-oops.
Kasdan, returning with cinematographer Gyula Pados, stages the kid-friendly action setpieces with refreshing panache and clarity for a blustering studio film of its type. A perilous journey across a series of rotating, broken bridges late in the film is a particular highlight, a whirlwind jumping puzzle filled with ravenous mandrills that feels like something out of Uncharted.
This Jumanji may not build off the previous one in totally successful ways; like a lot of video game sequels, there will be at least something in the new one that reminds you of why you liked playing the first one. But you’re probably better off just replaying what you already have.
Jumanji: The Next Level puts another coin in the slot and fires up a new game December 13th.