Jumanji: The Next Level is the second sequel to 1995’s Jumanji and a direct follow-up to 2007’s Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle. You don’t need to have seen either predecessor to enjoy The Next Level, and in fact it’s probably better if you haven’t seen Welcome to the Jungle (You can read Nick Rogers’ pan here.)
Frankly, I didn’t see the first, and probably never will. The important information is dumped pretty quickly in this installment: There is an old video game set in the mystical world of Jumanji that can suck real humans into its endless realms. Humans — or players — inhabit the bodies of a number of heroic characters with special attributes.
Dr. Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson) is a hunky, ultra-powerful bruiser type. Professor Sheldon “Shelly” Oberon (Jack Black) is a multiple Ph.D scientist with lots of knowledge. Mouse Finbar (Kevin Hart) is the utility character. Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan) is the commando ass-kicker and, thanks to Gillan’s generally under-utilized comedic timing, by far the funniest of the bunch.
Welcome to the Jungle saddled these archetypes with players whose real-world personalities made them ill-fits. Nervous and fretful Spencer (Alex Wolff) was stuck in Bravestone; popular girl Bethany (Madison Iseman) was stuck in the fat professor; jock Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain) ended up in tiny little Mouse; and shy intellectual Martha (Morgan Turner) ended up in the short-shorted, tank-topped Ruby.
This time around, Spencer disappears while home from college for the holidays. His three friends, feeling ghosted after a semester of decreasing contact, go to his house to investigate and discover he was sucked back into Jumanji. The three of them are soon pulled in as well, mixed and matched with new characters and a new wrinkle: They’re accompanied into the game by Spencer’s elderly grandpa Eddie (Danny DeVito) and his old pal Milo (Danny Glover). Cue Dwayne Johnson acting like Danny DeVito, which is as repetitive and pleasantly silly as it sounds.
The gang cut the prolific body-swap genitalia gags from the first movie for a lot of jokes about Eddie and Milo being old and completely out of their depth in a video game. Do those get tiresome? Yeah. But frankly, the heart of the movie this time is the relationship between Eddie and Milo, and it mostly works thanks to Johnson and Hart’s chemistry. The other actors all get their chance to play different versions of themselves as well, but it’s not worth spoiling the body-swap shenanigans here. Can’t go without mentioning that Awkwafina joins the main roster this time around and shines at expressing different personalities on a dime.
Beyond the character comedy, though, The Next Level has a disappointing reliance on big CGI setpieces that are cumbersome and beside the point. The third act, too, feels like too much too late, as the squad storms a mountain castle inhabited by the evil Jurgen the Brutal (Rory McCann) to retrieve a precious object that can free them from the game. There’s a blimp in there, too. The snowy setting is a nice way of getting Gillan into more clothing (a complaint about the first one among fans), but otherwise it just feels like belaboring the point.
The four main stars could theoretically play off the body swap gags for a long, healthy franchise. Those are definitely the highlights of this entry. They have the talent and good humor to do it; as long as those entries try for the same sappy-but-sweet level of heartfelt good cheer as the strongest parts of The Next Level, I’m all for it. If they continue to drown out the character work with increasingly over-complex, endless action sequences? Let’s just say, that would not be next-level.