Welcome Back for Another Round of Adventure/Comedy with Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, and… Danny DeVito??
DIRECTED BY JAKE KASDAN/2019
Strictly speaking, by conventional rules, this is the third Jumanji movie. (The original film, directed by Joe Johnston and starring Robin Williams with a slew of rudimentary CGI wildlife, dropped in 1995). If you go by the expanded rules, and count the adaptation of the original book’s sequel, it’s the fourth. (That being Jon Favreau’s ever-underrated 2005 yarn, Zathura: A Space Adventure). If you play by the simplified rules, this is only the second in the series, being that it’s a direct follow-up to 2017’s Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle.
With that film, director Jake Kasdan scored an unforeseen major win. Between shifting the cockamamie board-game-come-to-life premise of two decades ago to a Tron-with-wildlife trapped-in-a-video-game storyline, and casting Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Karen Gillan, and Jack Black, Sony and its filmmakers managed to play just the right cards in the right way. Even squaring off against Star Wars: The Last Jedi didn’t stop Welcome to the Jungle’s solid spin to box office glory. No, it did not beat Star Wars, but it provided an altogether agreeable alternative for the whole family.
Now, two years have passed, and Kasdan and his cast are looking to level up by once more going into the made-up vintage video game world of Jumanji. (Which, ironically and in-universe, looks to be about as old as the Robin Williams original movie). Everybody, including the core group of kids who first went into the game, is back for this expansive new round, with a few important new additions: Danny DeVito and Danny Glover factor in this time, endearingly representing the older set, if nothing else. The aged Dannys are playing to their well-established personas. Glover, as DeVito’s estranged buddy, is eased and deliberately paced while DeVito (the main kid’s ailing grandpa) is his usual brash and fuzzy steamroller, in this case inadvertently flagging up how non-charismatic the core kid actors actually are.
Soon enough, the onus of who’s really carrying the film shifts to the marquee talent, listed earlier. Feather-weight contrivance once again finds the kids in the familiar world of Jumanji, again physically inhabiting the character avatars of the video game’s stereotypical heroes. Like last time, much of the comedy lies in the random happenstance of who ends up as who. How does a prissy self-consumed Instagram-obsessed girl deal with being a nerdy map expert with the body of Jack Black? How does a star athlete deal with being a subservient carrier of another guy’s weapons and harboring a fatale aversion to cake? How does a quiet mousy girl take to being forced into a Lara Croft-style body? And how does a geeky kid who needs an inhaler adjust to being the upright hero with the physique of Dwayne Johnson? Before the end, in a cleverly approachable take on common humanity (some may read in a subversive spin on gender and identity fluidity) they’ve all owned their avatars and their respective roles.
But that was last time. This time, new wrinkles successfully stir up the proceedings even more-so, as no one lands in their avatar of Welcome to the Jungle. (Oh, and someone is a horse this time around). And get this!… The two old Dannys are also pulled in. (A wrinkle not unforeseen to anyone keyed into basic story mechanics, but a creatively fresh move that gives this sequel its heart). Much of the humor lies in how the two old men, having a stilted conversation over coffee one minute suddenly find themselves in a different world with different rules with different bodies the next, process being in a video game. (They can’t). Less effective are the mandatory DeVito and Glover impressions of the avatar actors. Not awful, but just rickety enough to bring some uneasy performance quality to this otherwise crowd-pleasing uncanny valley.
Once the adventure gets up and running, it all becomes texture, anyhow. Don’t ask what the adventure is all about in The Next Level; I couldn’t begin to remember- much like how I couldn’t begin to remember if this was the same teen actors/characters in the wraparounds as the 2017 predecessor. When one of them must go get Nick Jonas’s character, the expository key to the previous film who I’d completely forgotten, I found myself about as lost as I get playing any video game or newfangled board game. (Which is, rather lost). But again, that’s all okay for the most part. Yes, it’s a bit frustrating that The Next Level sees fit to actually expect the viewer to recall numerous details of the previous film, as though it’s some chronically rewatched epic that the culture has inexplicably latched on. (It isn’t. It’s a film most of us watched once with our families, and then moved on from). Thankfully though, such callbacks are able to be intuitively caught up with pretty quickly, even for the most DeVito/Glovers-type members of the audience.
Jumanji: The Next Level, though a slight step down from Welcome to the Jungle, won’t disappoint audience looking for a return to that adventure/comedy. (It helps to have around the talented relative newcomer Awkwafina this time, as well). As a CGI spectacle with deadly consequences (witness each character burn through two of their three lives, inevitably leaving everyone with just one, just as things get most intense), The Next Level rolls positive. As far as such things go, it’s an entirely fine film that is for the most part fun, well-crafted, not condescending, catchy and even evidencing a bit of care. Just like last time, it ain’t Star Wars (which this entry also finds itself squaring off against at the box office). But also, just like last time, nobody should expect that. These Jumanji movies are smart enough to know not to play to win. They play purely for the love of the game.