Columbia’s Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle was a surprisingly inventive and ingenious franchise revamp. It used its IP as a starting point on which to craft an original and crowd-pleasing action comedy with fun characters played by fun actors. Considering the pressures of delivering a sequel for a film that was both an unexpected super-smash and one where there was perhaps more affinity than expected for the characters (as opposed to the core franchise), I’m doubly surprised that Jumanji: The Next Level, opening this Thursday night, may be even better. It keeps what worked about the last film and finds new (and ever-changing) ways to switch up the status quo in order to make what could have been a mere rehash feel fresh and unpredictable.
The experiences of Welcome to the Jungle turned four relative strangers (Spencer, Fridge, Bethany and Martha) into close friends, but their lives have gone on different paths. Spencer (Alex Wolff) is feeling especially adrift and yearning for the confidence and power he briefly felt as Dr. Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson). As everyone arrives home for the holiday break, Spencer is nowhere to be found, and his friends soon discover that he has willingly jumped back into the world of Jumanji. So, into the game they go, but happenstance also causes Spencer’s grandfather (Danny DeVito) and an old friend (Danny Glover) to get sucked in as well. The kids must survive Jumanji yet again as the elders attempt to come to terms with some old wounds.
Yes, The Next Level plays a similar game. Once again, young kids end up sucked into a video game and forced to survive a video game adventure within their respective adult avatars. As you’ll know if you’ve seen the previews, the “real world” folks aren’t necessarily in the same avatars this time, the mission is more complicated, and two of the human players are senior citizens with their own problems. The film gets off on the right foot right away, both by offering a new status quo (the kids are still relatively close as a result of the first film even as Spenser drifts away) and a poignant new relationship (Eddie and Milo’s issues are both refreshingly specific and movingly relatable) which grounds the fantasy elements.
There is plenty of potentially redundant farce when the game restarts, as poor Martha/Ruby Roundhouse has to explain to Milo and Eddie (now encased in the roles of Mouse and Bravestone) how the game works. But it’s a treat seeing Dwayne Johnson act like Danny DeVito and Kevin Hart has a grand time mimicking an elder Danny Glover. Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain) ends up in the body of Jack Black’s Professor Oberon, and Black pulls off a delicate balancing act with a turn that could have been “problematic.” No spoilers, but Jack Black is the MVP of this franchise, consistently underplaying outlandish characters so as to not rely on stereotypes. Where are Bethany (Madison Iseman) and Spencer? Well, no spoilers, but they show up eventually.
Since Martha (Morgan Turner) is the only human player who initially returns to Jumanji in her previous avatar, Ruby Roundhouse is, by default, the leader this time. All of the adult actors, including newbie Awkwafina, get to have fun in a way that allows them to (repeatedly, think Cloud Atlas) play against type. The marketing has been refreshingly light on spoilers beyond stating the new hook, and as such, there were several unrevealed surprises along the way. While some of the jokes and beats are recycled from the last movie, there is plenty of fresh material. The emotional beats are refreshingly effective, especially the subplot involving Eddie and Milo’s history as former co-owners of a local diner, and both the effects and the action sequences are much improved.
The “Ruby beats up dudes” moments are better choreographed, more coherently edited and less self-congratulatory. A second act beat involving bridges feels like a video game level from hell with the clever staging of a climactic Pixar chase scene. The Next Level is a more expensive picture than Welcome to the Jungle ($120 million versus $90 million), but I would argue, relatively speaking, that the extra money went to fine-tuning the production value as opposed to just offering “more” and “bigger.” The humor in this PG-13 flick is a little darker, but nothing that the kids can’t handle. The screenplay, courtesy of director Jake Kasdan, Jeff Pinkner and Scott Rosenberg, possess the confidence of a previous blockbuster success while relishing the challenge of justifying a return trip.
Jumanji: The Next Level is a solid line drive to center field. The actors are still fun, the twists on the last film’s formula yield enough justification for another go-around, while the character development works to make it more than just a visceral exercise. It’s handsomely staged, pleasantly colorful, competently directed and cheerfully fashioned with just enough specificity to make sure it doesn’t feel like an assembly line product. It’s not high art, but it’s a darn good sequel to a surprisingly good predecessor. It’s no new classic, but it’s another very good video game movie that isn’t based on a video game. Warts and all, this third Jumanji is at least as good as we’d hope for every franchise-friendly studio biggie in this day and age.