May 30, 2024

Film Review: ‘Jumanji: The Next Level’ Is Anything But

All the way back in 2017, “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” surprised audiences when the film, anticipated to be an aimless low-end Hollywood reboot, turned out to be an exhilarating comic adventure. Choosing to update the title board game with a video game, the reboot also centered around unsuspecting game players sucked into the dangerous world of Jumanji. The players had two potential fates, they can escape the game by completing a series of challenges or, if they use up all three of their video game lives they are eliminated and it is “game over!”

That film revolved around four real-world players, who seem to have been torn from the pages of a John Hughes screenplay. There’s the nerdy brain, the awkward shy girl, the beautiful popular girl and the jock who all cross paths while spending time in detention. (I told you they were straight out of John Hughes). While serving their after-school punishment they come across an old, dusty video game console. Once plugged in the foursome are pulled into the world of the game, embodied by their selected avatars (video game characters). As is common, each avatar possesses video game style strengths and weaknesses.

Where Have I Seen This Before?

The nerdy brain, Spencer, transformed from his skinny, lanky self in the buff archeologist Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson). The awkward shy girl, Martha becomes the inappropriately underdressed, expert martial artist, Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan). The popular girl, Bethany, became her own worst nightmare, a portly, bearded, middle-aged man, Professor Shelly Oberon (Jack Black). The jock, Fridge, loses half his size and physical strength, downsizing from a linebacker-sized football player to the jockey-sized, sidekick “Moose” Finbar (Kevin Hart).

Once inside the game world, the film kicked into high gear as we watched our four heroes navigate the jungles of Jumanji in a kind of mashup “The Breakfast Club” meets “Raiders of the Lost Ark” adventure. The film captured a true video game feel as they worked through a series of deadly obstacles. It was a gratifying balance of action, comedy and, while predictable, coming-of-age story. You saw the self-discovery lessons learned coming a mile away, but that didn’t matter because it added some heart to the action. Throw in some quality comedic performances from the leads and you got the paint-by-numbers popcorn film you did not know you needed.

Carbon Copy

Fast forward to the next entry in the series, “Jumanji: The Next Level” a carbon copy of the Jungle. As is the case with most carbon copies, it pales in comparison. Just about everything you remember from the previous installment, for better or for worse is back, including the cast – both the real-world players and the avatar versions of themselves.

Bringing back the entire cast may seem like a step in the right direction, it actually serves as the film’s biggest hurdle. Sadly, one it never clears. We were provided sufficient closure when we last saw them in “Jungle.” For “The Next Level” to succeed, returning director/writer Jake Kasdan had the overcome a challenge of his own, finding something interesting to say about these characters, again. Spoiler alert – he doesn’t. It may be different if years had passed and the foursome had grown and changed as people. But seeing that these characters were fairly one dimensional to begin with, there is little to build on. What we are left with is a lazy excuse to reunite the familiar faces to partake on an unnecessarily, near-identical quest.

Instead of any character development or real plot, we are provided with the first sign of a poor sequel (medically known as sequelitis), the addition of new “quirky” characters. I guess the approach is if you have nothing left to say, say more of it. The cast additions come in the form of the crotchety big mouth Grandpa Eddie, (Danny DeVito) and his former friend Milo (Danny Glover). The elderly duo is pulled into the game with the original cast providing heaps of tired age-focused humor. Along the way, we also meet the Ming the thief (Awkwafina), and a generic villain played by (The Hound from “Game of Thrones,” Rory McCann,) because…. why not, I guess.

Fan Disservice

For the most part, having the expanded cast is more of a disservice than a benefit. While they provide some laughs, they serve as little more than a strained excuse to have charactered swap bodies as they go from challenge to challenge. Some audiences will get a kick out of seeing how a 70-year old man will react to living in a 20-something’s body or even a horse (yep, that happens too). For most, I am assuming the novelty will wear off quickly, leaving you longing for something more substantive. About midway through the film, after being subjected to endless cringe-inducing attempts by both Johnson and Awkwafina to mimic Danny DeVito. My brain needed a break and wandered off wondering if the sole pitch for the sequel revolved around a competition to see who could do the worst Danny DeVito imitation. It is a close race.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not trying to dump in this film – I did not go in expecting a cinematic classic, only something that aimed higher. While “Jungle” breathed life into some tropes, the follow-up does not even seem to try to live up to its “Next Level” name. It feels tired. We spend too much time delivering exposition, relearning the rules of the game, and retreading video game gimmicks that worked last time.

But Is It Watchable?

And with all that said, it is still not unwatchable. The comic chemistry of the leads (The Rock, Jack Black, Karen Gillan and Kevin Hart) provides several laughs. They are a good core group. It is a shame they weren’t given more to do. The bigger action scenes will satisfy fans of the genre, especially an inventive rope bridge sequence that has our avatars traversing across a canyon while in pursuit of some very nasty mandrils. Still, even with the bigger action sequence, the stakes seem lower – the rules are the same, the characters have not evolved, the game is identical. Without the inclusion of any “meaningful” character growth, even if it was more predictable John Hughes level messaging, it all seems kind of pointless. But heck, the kids will like it.

The tease for the inevitable next installment has all the signs of a series running out of steam. Unless we lose the original four real-world players, I don’t think there is much hope going forward. I’d recommend you save our quarters for the previous installment and consider this franchise out of order. Go play the original.



Quick Scan

The newest addition to the Jumanji franchise lacks the magic needed to get it to the next level, or even the previous.

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