By Bob Garver
“Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” was one of the more successful reboots in recent memory. The 2017 film managed to make over $400 million at the domestic box office despite opening in the shadow of “Star Wars: The Last Jedi.” The appeal was apparently a combination of nostalgia for the 1995 Robin Williams original and the bankability of stars Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Karen Gillan, and Jack Black. The formula was such a winner that it would have been crazy if we didn’t get a sequel. “Jumanji: The Next Level” recaptures what “worked” about the 2017 film (even if it didn’t always work for me) while adding a twist that makes it unique in its own right.
Like the 2017 film, the sequel sees young adults Spencer (Alex Wolff), Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain), Martha (Morgan Turner), and Bethany (Madison Iseman) sucked into the “Jumanji” video game. Spencer goes in on his own volition because he wants to feel like a hero again and his friends have to go in and rescue him. But the game is broken and not only doesn’t let the players choose their characters, it also sucks in Spencer’s nearby grandfather Eddie (Danny DeVito) and his visiting former business partner Milo (Danny Glover).
Martha once again gets to play as Ruby Roundhouse (Gillan) but everyone else is mixed up. Fridge now has to play as mostly-useless map reader Shelly Oberon (Black). Eddie is ready-made hero Smolder Bravestone (Johnson) and Milo is the brainy Moose Finbar (Hart). Spencer and Bethany are initially nowhere to be seen; Bethany shows up later as a horse named Cyclone after persuading former player Alex (Colin Hanks) to reenter the game as his player Seaplane McDonough (Nick Jonas) and Spencer is a new character whose casting is a secret.
Eddie and Milo have a tough time adjusting to the adventurous and tech-heavy setting. It’s understandable that they’d be confused at first, but after a while I have to insist that they at least know that there is such a thing as a video game. Johnson and Hart have fun taking on old-man affectations, which is a lot more enjoyable than the cringing I did while watching Black take on African-American affectations from Fridge. Eventually the two get the hang of their characters and see it as something of a new lease on life, with Eddie beating up scores of bystanders (I felt sorry for those “people” until I remembered that they’re just video game characters) and Milo dedicating himself to those who can’t defend themselves (noble, but again, not real people). Actually, the Eddie/Milo storyline is much more engaging than any of the tired action or comedy sequences. It’s easy to make fun of how many movies Johnson and Hart do together, but the upside is that the two have developed a chemistry that carries them through any kind of scene, including the dramatic, serious ones we get in the latter half of this film.
“Jumanji: The Next Level” succeeds in what it does differently from the 2017 film, but falls flat on its face any time things seem familiar. Eddie and Milo have a mature discussion about an old grudge? Fine. We get not one, but two animal-attack sequences? Boring. Cyclone the horse shows personality? Funny. Jokes are made at the expense of Kevin Hart’s height? Way, way, way played out. I actually think there’s more to like about this movie than there was in the 2017 film, but the pitfalls are as grating as ever.
“Jumanji: The Next Level” is rated PG-13 for adventure action, suggestive content and some language. Its running time is 123 minutes.
Contact Bob Garver at [email protected].