3.5 out of 5 stars.
2017’s “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” was a surprisingly imaginative reboot of the 1995 film. But it wouldn’t be unreasonable to expect that its sequel, “Jumanji: The Next Level,” wouldn’t have anything new and exciting to offer. While it does retain a lot of the same elements that made the previous film a success, this “Jumanji” adds a couple new characters and twists that make it a fun and entertaining ride.
Jake Kasdan returns as director, as does the cast. Set about a year after the previous film, Spencer (Alex Wolff), Martha (Morgan Turner), Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain), and Bethany (Madison Iseman) have started college and gone their separate ways, but remain friends and plan to meet up over winter break. But Spencer, who went from being a high school senior with a girlfriend to a largely ignored college freshman, longs to feel as in control as he did when he was Dr. Bravestone in the video game Jumanji. So when he gets home, he decides to return to the game, and his friends end up going in after him. But there’s a twist: Spencer’s grandpa Eddie (Danny DeVito) and his former friend and business partner Milo Walker (Danny Glover) are in the house at the same time, and end up getting sucked into the game as well. Suddenly, nothing is familiar to the younger players, who find themselves having to complete a new mission to save Jumanji and survive the game.
A fun thing that this movie does is switch around which characters possess which avatar when they are inside the game. Martha is still martial arts expert Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan), but Fridge is now in the portly body of Professor Sheldon Oberon (Jack Black). Grandpa Eddie is the strong and smoldering Dr. Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson), Milo is zoologist Franklin Finbar (Kevin Hart), and Spencer ends up playing a new character, cat burglar Ming Fleetfoot (Awkwafina). Alex (played by Colin Hanks in the real world and Nick Jonas in Jumanji) is also back, and Bethany…well, you’ll just have to see for yourself what Bethany ends up as.
It’s clear that the actors are having a great time rising to the challenge of switching bodies and playing each other, and that’s the most entertaining aspect of this film by far, more so than the action/adventure. Jack Black steals the show again, first embodying a young black man and then a preppy teenage girl, but all of the actors have something to offer. They do an amazing job distinguishing between the different characters embodying their avatars, so there’s never any doubt who is playing who. When Johnson and Hart are Eddie and Milo, it’s obvious that they are playing old men who have no clue what is going on, from their manner of speech to their physical actions. The storyline that Eddie and Milo eventually play out ends up being a sweet one, even if it doesn’t relate to that of the young people (who, since they start this film already friends, don’t have a ton of personal growth here), but they also serve as a way to reintroduce viewers to how this world works without a lot of unnecessary exposition. Awkwafina, meanwhile, is a hilarious new addition who really gets to show off her comedic talents here.
The plot is your typical straightforward video game fare that doesn’t always make a lot of sense, and takes a back seat to the humor and action. It’s also a little longer than it needs to be, but the jokes are frequent and funny in a way that is clever enough to appeal to both kids and adults. While the setup may occasionally feel familiar, the film is careful not to retread on exactly what happened before, giving us new settings and characters along with a message of the importance of friendship.
“Jumanji: The Next Level” leaves the viewer with the impression that there very well could be a third installment in this series, but also that it may once again twist our expectations. Hopefully if this series does continue, that will be the case; it would be a shame for a franchise this fun to wear out its welcome.
Runtime: 123 minutes. Rated PG-13.