A film review by Craig J. Koban December 25, 2019

JUMANJI: THE NEXT LEVEL jjj

2019, PG-13, 123 mins.

 

Dwayne Johnson as Dr. Smolder Bravestone  /  Jack Black as Professor Shelly Oberon  /  Kevin Hart as Moose Finbar  /  Karen Gillan as Ruby Roundhouse  /  Nick Jonas as Alex  /  Rhys Darby as Nigel  /  Alex Wolff as Spencer  /  Madison Iseman as Bethany  /  Nick Jonas as Jefferson 'Seaplane' McDonough  /  Danny DeVito as Eddie  /  Awkwafina as Ming  /  Danny Glover as Milo

Directed by Jake Kasdan  /  Written by Kasdan, Scott Rosenberg and Jake Kasdan

Deep down, my cold and calculating critical mind knows that JUMANJI: THE NEXT LEVEL is kind of the perfect embodiment of sequel cash grab.   

For as much as I enjoyed the previous entry in this franchise, 2017's WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE (which was, in turn, both a direct sequel and soft reboot of the 1995 Robin Williams' starring intro installment), it was nevertheless a sequel that I never felt required an additional follow-up.  Granted, the box office gods spoke (WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE made a billion dollars worldwide), which brings us to the unavoidable JUMANJI: THE NEXT LEVEL, and even though some of the creative freshness of what came directly before has subsided, this third film scores huge points in the limitless affability of its wonderfully re-assembled cast.  Watching this film is akin to getting back together with old friends whose company you like: It's an inessential sequel, yes, but is lively, action/VFX packed, and shows off the actors having great fun hilariously playing different iterations of their past characters (more on that in a bit). 

In case you missed it or forget what's come before, JUMANJI: WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE featured four misfit high school teenagers - Spencer (Alex Wolff), Martha (Morgan Turner), Fridge (Ser'Darius Blain) and Bethany (Madison Iseman) - spending detection together...that is until they discovered an old cobwebbed covered video game console, which magically whisked them to the world of Jumanji within the game.  They all wound up in bodies of adult avatar characters, like the muscle bound Indiana Jones on steroids Dr. Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson), zoologist Franklin Finbar (Kevin Hart), Professor Shelly Oberon (Jack Black) and, my personal favorite, the scantily and impractically clad kick ass commando Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan), who specialized in dance fighting.  The teens barely managed to make it out of the video game world and back into their own alive, which led to them destroying the console and hoping to rid themselves of the experience forever. 

 

 

Well, in the magical land that is this sequel, that pesky video game machine was never really lost, seeing as the now college bound and lonely Spencer has resurrected it from the dead and attempts to go back in to play again as his much beefier and mightier avatar in hopes of escaping the pressures of the real world.  Fearing for the safety of their BFF, Martha, Bethany, and Fridge decided to band together and also go back into the game on a rescue/intervention mission, but things go south upon immediately arriving back in Jumanji.  Firstly, most of them - with the exception of Martha - are not back in their original avatar bodies.  Fridge, to his dismay, ends up in the pudgy frame of Dr. Oberon, who was once occupied by Bethany (she never made it through this time), and, in a funny twist of fate, Spencer's own grandfather in Eddie (series newcomer Danny DeVito) ends up in the hulking frame of Bravestone and his semi-estranged elderly buddy in Milo (Donald Glover) ends up in the backpack wearing Finbar.  Complicating things immensely is the presence of a new vile villain in the form of Jurgen the Brutal (GAME OF THRONES' Rory McCann), who makes it very difficult for the heroes to find Spencer and locate a very special stone that will help them escape Jumanji...again. 

One the best hooks of this new JUMANJI - which helps elevate it above the moniker of a pointless re-tread of the last film - is the joyously funny twists involved in having these avatars being controlled by different people this go around, which gives the actors portraying them a whole new set of comedic acting challenges.  The last film flirted with the idea of these avatars being taken over by young people that were their polar opposite in most respects (and in poor Dr. Oberon's case, gender swapping occurred, much to Bethany's dismay).  Now, we get to see Johnson return to the role of Bravestone, but this time being saddled with the presence of DeVito driving his body, which allows for the Rock to amusingly play into this old man's shock of inhabiting a raw physical specimen ("My joints feel like butter!" he enthusiastically proclaims at one point).  JUMANJI: THE NEXT LEVEL is stolen, though, by Kevin Hart, who in a very meta performance has to dial down his usual motormouthed antics and do a pretty spot-on impersonation of Glover's slow paced infections.  You actually believe that Donald Glover has possessed Kevin Hart's body.  I liked how Hart had to reign in his hyperactive energy here and how Johnson had to somehow plausibly relay that there's a cranky old grandpa that now pulls all of his body strings.  Even funnier is the idea that this old fart has no idea that he's been matrixed into a video game ("Are we in Florida?" he idiotically deadpans at one point). 

The reboot cast being rebooted here is all splendid and inviting fun, but it's also reassuring to see returning writer/director Jake Kasdan managing to re-find his footing again to happily marry the first film's well oiled comedy alongside healthy dosages of visual dynamism.  Bill Brzeski's wonderfully spirited production design here is a force to be reckoned with, and I also appreciated the change in environments this time, which traverses between snake and hippo infested jungles to mountainous snowy terrains, which is welcome and refreshing.  Kasdan spares no expense when it comes to eye popping visual effects, and JUMANJI: THE NEXT LEVEL - like WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE - shows great imagination with its set pieces and imagery.  This time, Kasdan unleashes CGI-heavy standoffs between the heroes and a stampede of thousands of mad ostriches as well as a superb game of cat and mouse on a series of suspended bridges versus a clan of man-hating primates.  Beyond these sequences and before its obligatory climax set at the villain's castle on top of a mountaintop, we get treacherous voyages involving dune buggies and zeppelins, and, rather thankfully, a welcome return to dance fighting form for Roundhouse, albeit with the added new ability of proficiency with nunchucks.  Watching the dexterous and lethal goon squad decimating heroine belt out "This is awesome!" after trying out her new skill set is arguably worth the price of admission. 

JUMANJI: THE NEXT LEVEL has a few other nifty tricks up its creative sleeves.  I laughed when Bethany's fate in the game is revealed (which I won't reveal here, other than to say I didn't see it coming), and Awkwafina also shows up in a small, but pivotal role as the thief Ming that, shall we say, also has to run the performance body switching gambit much like Johnson and the Rock, and mostly to solid comedic effect.  Yet, despite the performance goodwill from the returning cast and the newcomers and Kasdan's slick directorial proficiency here, JUMANJI: THE NEXT LEVEL has a weakly realized villain in McCann's Jurgen, who's simply not in the film enough to make a sizeable and lasting presence.  He's an instantly forgettable and disposable baddie that rarely makes an impression.  Added to this problem is the fact that THE NEXT LEVEL doesn't particularly expand the world building and rules of the Jumanji video game universe, and sometimes it feels like this sequel is just regurgitating old fetch quest plotting of the last sequel.  I shouldn't completely give this film a three star stamp of approval, but I'm going to, with some reservations.  It's a sequel born more out of financial imperative than creative aims, to be sure, but as far as seasonal cash grabbing sequel fare goes for the whole family, JUMANJI: THE NEXT LEVEL is an entertaining and slickly packaged fantasy/popcorn flick that rarely makes you want to hit the reset button. 

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