Jumanji: The Next Level and all the images you see in this review are owned by Sony Pictures Releasing
Directed by Jake Kasdan
Two years after the Jumanji reboot and I still think it’s a pretty good movie! I’ve had to of seen it at least twice since seeing it in theaters, and it still holds up pretty well; especially with such a fun and talented cast that could have phoned it in and let the special effects do all the work but instead elevated the material to something far more watchable than you’d expect at first glance! Now it’s time for a sequel, and… well I don’t know about you but I’d have rather seen a sequel to Baywatch than watch them try to recreate what made that reboot so good. Seems like a bit of a long shot that we’ll get something halfway decent out of this, but hey! I was saying the same thing about that first movie before it came out, and look what we got! Can we go back to the well one more time without the formula feeling stale and apathetic? Let’s find out!!
After Spencer, Fridge, Martha, and Bethany (Alex Wolff, Ser’Darius Blain, Morgan Turner, and Madison Iseman) had defeated the mysterious Jumanji video game and smashed it to bits with a bowling ball, we pick up on their lives a year or so later where everyone is off doing their own thing but still manage to stay in touch as they even plan on meeting up during the winter break. However, only three of them show up to the meeting spot so they go to check on Spencer and find that his grandfather Eddie (Danny DeVito) hasn’t seen him since last night, though he hasn’t been paying much attention this morning as he has an unexpected house guest in the form of his former business partner Milo (Danny Glover) who Eddie’s been avoiding for over a decade now due to some conflict that broke them apart and I’m sure will be resolved before the end of the movie. Anyway, Fridge, Martha, and Bethany go to the basement to find that Spencer not only took the Jumanji pieces home with them but repaired them to the best of his abilities (I don’t know how many MAGIC retro console repair tutorial are on YouTube but I’m pretty sure it’s more than zero) and has managed to get himself back into the game. With their friend’s life (as well as contractual obligations) hanging over our heroes’ heads, they head back into the game once more time. However, things don’t go as planned as only Fridge and Martha wake up inside, and while Martha is still in the body of Karen Gillan, Fridge is now in the body of Jack Black. The ones filling the Dwayne Johnson and Kevin Hart shaped meat sacks turn out to be Eddie and Milo respectively who have no idea what’s going on but don’t seem to disturbed by it; assuming they just died or something. With only half their team, a brand new game scenario involving some dude named JURGEN THE BRUTAL (Rory McCann), and even some new mechanics including magic fruit and a body switching liquid, can this rag tag group of tired pros and retired noobs find Spencer and beat the game before everyone dies a miserable and painful death? What will Spencer have to say for himself once they find him and start demanding answers as to why he’s here in the first place? Will Eddie and Milo be able to resolve their decade’s long rivalry, and will it be half as compelling as the Sunny episode Frank’s Brother!?
There’s something of a rule where sequels of unexpectedly good films will end up being the movie we dreaded the first one to be. Hoodwinked is always a good example, and I’m still AMAZED at how badly they botched that Jurassic World sequel, but now we’ve got another one to add to the list as this is a mostly empty spectacle with a recognizable name on it; basically what we expected the first one to be since it was yet another reboot in a sea of nineties nostalgia. Everything that worked about the first one from its solid characters and interestingly realized game world is halfheartedly recreated here to far diminished results with the movie’s premise itself serving as a metaphor for how much of a bad idea it was to try this again in this particular way. NO ONE in the movie wants to go back to Jumanji and only feel obliged to do so which… WOO, that certainly pumps me up to see a fun and exciting adventure, right!? I just don’t understand the point of making something so deliberately cynical while at the same time making the EXACT SAME MOVIE which feels like the worst of both worlds; an encore show where everyone is clearly burned out and don’t care anymore but also are contractually obliged to not put anything new into the act that might bring back a bit of creative verve. Some stuff does work such as the way they handle the new characters and I think the villain is at least BETTER if still not GOOD, but those are the bare minimum first steps you take when making a sequel; not the saving graces of it.
The whole movie is desperately trying to recapture that lightening in a bottle magic that made the 2017 Jumanji film a rather enjoyable ride despite how cynical its inception seemed to be, and in doing so essentially puts that left out cynicism right into this sequel. The thing is, the Robin Williams Jumanji was not something to be rebooted lightly as it may have big marquee value being one of the more recognizable family films of that decade, but it also had a really dark tone that seems incompatible with the current space of PG-13 Family Action Fluff that dominates the box office (starring Dwayneson The Rockson Johnson at least forty percent of the time) and yet it managed to work! No, they didn’t match the tone of the Robin Williams film, but instead the 2017 film made it its own thing and it had just enough genuine heart behind it to make it stand out from a lot of other movies that year. That extra bit of charm, wit, and especially heart, just isn’t present here as everything just feels like a tired retread. The first action scene in the desert is a total bore that I was practically falling asleep in which was only about twenty minutes into the darn thing and not a great sign for the rest of the movie. Now there are SOME action beats here and there that are fun, especially a street brawl where Dwayne-DeVito lets loose on his superhuman strength to ragdoll as many hapless bandits as possible, but with such a flimsy narrative to hang it on, the action scenes just feel like time wasters in a movie that is already WAY too long.
The whole setup just isn’t doing anyone any favors as it’s all so utterly contrived and requires the characters to regress significantly in order for it to work. It would have been one thing if SOMEONE ELSE found the broken Jumanji machine in the last film and it either repaired itself because MAGIC or the person who found it put it back together, but having one of the characters immediately double back and do it himself essentially ruins the rather definitive ending we got last time as well as creates a poor foundation for this film to build itself off of. Sure, there can be SOME value in a squel revealing that the lessons learned in the first one are not the be all end all of the characters’ growth (what happens after Happily Ever After and all that), but it feels like we’re taking ten steps backwards to go one step forward. Even the game world itself feels like its phoning it in as the new desert and snow locations just don’t add enough new ideas to the movie and the structure is almost exactly the same; down to a brief excursion in a town right in the middle of the movie and the way that the conflict eventually has to be resolved. It feels less like a NEXT LEVEL than the same level with a few bonus objectives and side quests; and not even the FUN kind of side quests.
Really, the only good arts of the movie are whenever the actors are impersonating Danny DeVito and Danny Glover whose characters at least have an arc worth exploring compared to the returning characters who are noticeably written to be as miserable as possible being here; not that they were having a barrel of laughs the last time around, but there’s a tired resignation to their performances that seems utterly baffling in a movie that should be trying to be anything BUT tired and resigned. Dwayne Johnson and Kevin Hart who play these characters for the most part manage to bring quite a bit of humanity to their performances that soften the edges on what broad caricatures they’re being asked to play; DeVito being cranky and clueless and Glover being… well just clueless. Where the last movie did a decent job of integrating the narrative of their growth with the actual game they were playing (actions and consequences taken to advance the quest are reflective of character flaws and strengths), they’re basically locked in two separate boxes for this film with DeVito and Glover more or less stumbling their way through the action set pieces and then talking about their strained past during the quieter parts. There’s SOMETHING there with DeVito actually enjoying being a big tough guy due to his problems with getting older, but it mostly came off as a token effort to tie something back around and he’s willing to give it up with absolutely no resistance or hesitation once we get to the third act. Still, the parts with these two basically just hashing out their differences are some of the best parts of the movie, and frankly I don’t think they cost nearly as much as the far less memorable bloated action set pieces. Also, the villain played by Rory McCann is at least THERE for most of the movie which is an improvement over the blink and you’d miss him role that Bobby Cannavale had in the first film, and while he doesn’t have much of what you’d call a “character”, he at least has a great deal of presence and feels like a genuine threat to everyone else.
It’s hard not to compare this thing to the last movie considering how similar the two of them are, and the problem is that everything that felt fun and original about that one feels mostly tired and half-hearted here. There’s still some of the spark of the other film to be found in here with some good performances from our four main stars, but outside of a few small moments here and there I just can’t think of a reason to see this one when I could be watching the other movie instead. I’d recommend you all do just that; save your money buying the blu ray of the first one if you haven’t already and MAYBE check this one out when it gets a home release. Hopefully the next one, if they bother making it that is, actually goes with a fresh new cast and maybe some updates to the premise. If there’s one franchise I wouldn’t mind them rebooting every two years, it’s this one!