I went into the last Jumanji film, Welcome to the Jungle, with such neutral expectations that I was pleasantly surprised to discover a funny, energetic adventure comedy featuring an array of actors I happen to like and a storyline that gently pokes fun at the sameness of many video games and how they are played. So with all of the previous film’s cast and filmmaker returning, as well as an array of new players to this arena, I dared to let my expectations elevate slightly as I walked into watch Jumanji: The Next Level.
Opting to spend a bit more time with the flesh-and-blood young men and women who are the ones actually playing the titular game, the third Jumanji movie (counting the 1995 original) finds our heroes now in college in separate geographic locations but all still friends, planning to reunite in their hometown over a break. It turns out that Spencer (Alex Wolff) is having a difficult time being on his own in New York City, in large part due to being separated from now-girlfriend Martha (Morgan Turner). The other two friends, Bethany (Madison Iseman) and Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain), seem to be adjusting just fine, but all are worried about Spencer, especially when he doesn’t show up to breakfast at their favorite local diner.
Spencer is staying with his mom and grandfather Eddie (Danny DeVito), who just happens to receive a visit from and estranged old friend, Milo (Danny Glover), on the day in question. It turns out that Spencer salvaged the broken pieces of the video game from the last movie, and somehow got it to work just enough to send himself back into the Jumanji game but not in the same avatar as the last time. So when his friends come searching for him and start poking around at the gaming fragment, they get pulled back into the game as well (except for Bethany at first), but so do Eddie and Milo, who happen to be upstairs when the game is activated. Not being able to pick their characters this time around, Fridge ends up in the body of Jack Black, Martha stays in the body of Karen Gillan, while Milo lands in Kevin Hart’s frame and Eddie’s grumpy old man persona fits uncomfortably in the body of Dwayne Johnson. Hilarity ensues.
Returning director Jake Kasdan (Walk Hard, Bad Teacher) does an admirable job putting his actors through the action paces once again without repeating himself too often. Once everyone figures out who’s who and what the new storyline of the game is, everyone must go through a fairly elaborate mission to locate Spencer and get back out of the game. The primary adversary seems to be a guy named Jurgen the Brutal (Rory McCann from “Game of Thrones”), who is a fairly standard-issue grumpy baddie with a bland personality and even less motivation. Also returning in game form is Nick Jonas’ adventurous Alex (played by Colin Hanks in the real world), who is also enlisted to help locate the missing Spencer, who it turns out has become a new avatar named Mind (played by the very funny Awkwafina). Did I mention that there’s a sequence in which some of the leads switch bodies? Don’t get a headache trying to keep track of who’s who.
In too many ways, The Next Level feels like more of the same. After a while, hearing Black make jokes at his own expense about being chubby and slow gets old; same with humor about Hart’s height. In addition, the adventure itself isn’t especially exciting or interesting, despite an abundance of special effects, a few laughs, and a never-ending supply of energy. As much as I adore DeVito and Glover, they aren’t really in the film that much. Instead we get Johnson and Hart pretending to be these two icons. The running joke about how slow Milo speaks is pretty funny and will ring especially true for those who know someone who can’t ever seem to get to the point in a conversation. I also like the subtext of Spencer wanting to return to the game to reclaim a bit of his outward confidence.
The chemistry among the four leads is still strong, and it needs to be to carry us through this largely uninspired story. There’s a part of me that wishes the gang had been placed in an entirely different type of video game this time around, but I’m here to review the movie they made and not the one I wish they had. I was especially impressed this time around by Gillan as the team’s strong, stable center. She doesn’t get even a fraction of the funny lines as a result, but having her in a scene usually means the nonsense will be kept to a minimum. I probably liked The Next Level about the same as the previous Jumanji outing, but this time around, the film is lacking that new car smell and the resulting staleness drags everything down with it. Not a complete disaster by any stretch, but if Kasdan and company decide to make another installment, they need to take our heroes in a completely new direction.
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