The 2017 film Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle ended quite definitively for a brand extension. A quartet of teenage heroes, having survived the experience of being sucked into the video-game version of the mysterious and malevolent Jumanji, take a bowling ball to the 90s-era game cartridge in the hopes of ensuring that it never bothers them again. But Welcome to the Jungle was an unexpected smash hit two holiday seasons ago, grossing nearly a billion dollars worldwide. So of course Sony has brought the world of Jumanji back for a follow-up film, Jumanji: The Next Level. Yet what felt surprisingly charming two years ago now feels a good deal more desperate.
Three of the four teens who returned from the Jumanji experience are pretty comfortable in their lives now. Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain) is pursuing football, Bethany (Madison Iseman) performs charity work around the world, and Martha (Morgan Turner) has become more extroverted in her college life. But poor Spencer (Alex Wolff) still feels very awkward and uncomfortable over at NYU, to the point where we learn that he kept the broken parts of Jumanji at his childhood home. Upon returning home for the holidays, Spencer puts it all together again, but when he vanishes, his friends try to re-enter the game to save him. Only Martha and Fridge return to Jumanji, with two unexpected visitors: Spencer’s crabby grandfather Eddie (Danny DeVito) and an old frenemy of his named Milo (Danny Glover). Add to that the following wrinkles: while Martha still adopts the avatar of Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan), Fridge now inhabits the portly Shelly (Jack Black), and DeVito and Glover’s oldsters embody the avatars played by Dwayne Johnson and Kevin Hart, respectively.
As you can probably tell, since the above plot mechanics don’t even explain why these teenagers have been brought back into Jumanji or the vaguely defined threat they have to quash, there is a lot going on in The Next Level. (We haven’t even gotten to the new character played by Awkwafina.) Unfortunately, the byproduct of all this convoluted story is that The Next Level doesn’t make a lick of sense. Even a ridiculous premise such as this needs to have some internal logic, as opposed to, say, creating a twist in which two characters can enter an inexplicably enchanted pool of water to switch bodies. The only fathomable reason for this twist is that the script had run out of good ideas. The film’s credited writers — director Jake Kasdan as well as Scott Rosenberg and Jeff Pinkner — appear to have just tossed a handful of ideas like this at the wall and hoped that enough of them stuck.
To their credit, there are two legitimately good ideas in The Next Level that make most of the first 75 minutes of the film mildly funny. It’s as simple as this: what if Dwayne Johnson had to act like Danny DeVito, and what if Kevin Hart had to act like Danny Glover? Yes, these are both one-note concept, but Johnson and Hart dive into their re-envisioned roles with such delight. Hart, in particular, is genuinely hilarious as the loquacious, slow-paced, and bemused Milo. Both men have to play characters who feel entirely lost – when the four real-world denizens land in Jumanji, the ensuing 10 or so minutes is dedicated to explaining the premise of the film to DeVito-as-Johnson and Glover-as-Hart, but in a surprisingly funny fashion.
The surprises go both ways, of course. Welcome to the Jungle was, as mentioned, a massive hit. Just as it makes logical business sense for Sony to turn around a sequel to the film, it would seem logical for the budget for this movie to increase in tandem. Though The Next Level has a bevy of action sequences, including a chase with vicious ostriches and a mad dash through rickety wooden bridges while the humans are beset upon by bloodthirsty mandrills, it doesn’t have the CGI budget to match. The ostrich chase, in particular, is a jaw-droppingly sloppy scene to behold. (The colleague sitting next to me mused whether or not the effects artists had ever seen an ostrich in real life, and I couldn’t help but concur.) The effects recall those of another Dwayne Johnson vehicle: his first starring role, in The Scorpion King. That film had terrible CG because of a low budget and because CG technology was only so advanced in the early 2000s. It’s hard to figure out what this movie’s excuse is.
Jumanji: The Next Level was inevitable as soon as it became clear that Welcome to the Jungle would serve as solid holiday-season competition at the box office. The problem, though, is that the inevitability of this film didn’t spark creative inspiration for its filmmakers. The lead actors are unquestionably game, Dwayne Johnson and Kevin Hart are both very funny when they get to riff as much different personalities, and because there are so many ideas tossed out, the film is rarely dull. But The Next Level is otherwise sweaty in its attempts to make its real-world characters and their choices remotely compelling, and their video-game exploits exciting. If there’s a third movie, they should figure out the story to start.
/Film Rating: 5 out of 10
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