“Jumanji: The Next Level” Movie Review


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     “Jumanji: The Next Level”, the inevitable sequel to 2017’s box office behemoth “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle”, comes about a year too soon, leaving you feeling as though you’ve been given a second helping you didn’t ask for.  I say that because there is very little director Jake Kasdan brings to the table which takes the franchise in any new or unexpected directions.    And the title practically gives that fact away with the plot simply running the characters through a similar experience in slightly different surroundings.  The film isn’t exactly a mess, so to speak, and there is some entertainment value to be had, but the overall result feels more like a timely cash grab by the studio, than an actual earnest effort to create something memorable.

     One of the glaring issues with “The Next Level” is realized within the first ten minutes.  The young real life characters from the first film - Spencer (Alex Wolff), Martha (Morgan Turner), Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain), and Bethany (Madison Iseman) - are reintroduced in a reunion scenario in which all of them are meeting again, sometime after the events of the first film.  And the problem is as an audience we don’t care.  None of these characters received meaningful screen time in the previous installment, and thus are not developed to the point where them coming together to reminisce is going to bring forth any kind of emotional response.  The bottom line is they are there to once again make the mistake of toying with a game that will suck them in and allow them to become the avatars played by the cast members we are actually paying to see.

     This leads to a clunky first act where Spencer arrives home from college and is forced to share a room with his aging grandfather, Eddie (Danny DeVito), while awaiting his friends arrival.  Coincidentally, this also happens to be the day one of Eddie’s long time business partners, Milo (Danny Glover), shows up at their doorstep after having not spoken for more than fifteen years.  As was revealed in “Welcome to the Jungle”, Spencer isn’t exactly the most confident of young adults, thus the reason his utilization of the game avatar played by Dwayne Johnson became so important to establishing his manliness.  But after a rough go attending college in New York, he apparently longs to become the character once more, so he makes the unwise decision to reenter the game.

     This, of course, means his friends decide to follow and give him a hand, only the transportation process into the game brings a couple unsuspecting guests.  Upon arrival, it is Eddie who becomes Dwayne Johnson and Milo who becomes the avatar played by Kevin Hart, leaving Fridge to take on Jack Black and Martha that of Karen Gillan.  All of this is played exactly as you would expect with Johnson and Hart hamming it up with their ongoing impressions of Danny DeVito’s Eddie and Danny Glover’s Milo, two old guys who are completely clueless as to what they are now involved in.  It’s unknown to the group what happened to Bethany, as is the whereabouts of Spencer, but the game goes on with a specific task presented in order to win and presumably exit back to the real world.

     Apparently, these days the only work veteran “Game of Thrones” actor Rory McCann can get is, well, playing the Hound.  Because that’s exactly what the creative minds behind this film did, essentially putting him in the same costume while occupying a world that looks very much like Westeros.  Awkwafina rounds out the cast as a cat burglar named Ming and like everyone else is given a moment or two to shine, but the sum of these parts never really equals a whole.  Fact is, “The Next Level” is practically interchangeable with the first film.  Everything within the plot is simply recycled or repurposed with the thinking that a new character or two brought along for the ride would merit a sequel.  It does not.

     Kasden, who also co-wrote the film with Jeff Pinkner and Scott Rosenberg, shows he is quite adept at handling effects heavy action sequences, two of which are the clear highlights of the film.  But the dialogue is derivative, drawing many of the same “What do we do now, and how do we do it?” lines from the first film with the only real suspense coming from the disappearing hashmarks on their forearms which indicate the number of lives they have left.  Every scene is played for laughs that sometimes hit, but miss much more often than we would like.  The fish out of water joke involving Eddie and Milo wears out its welcome quickly, and the jokes involving men occupying a female avatar and vise versa were funny in the first film, particularly in the scenes involving Jack Black, but fall flat here given we’ve seen it before in the very same way.  

     Moving forward and exploring new ideas was obviously not in the cards, though the post credit scene may be an indication the filmmakers are planning to do just that when the third film is green lit.  And sure, there are some games which merit playing several times in order to utilize a different strategy and maybe open up new possibilities, but unfortunately “Jumanji: The Next Level” is like one of those games you would finish and then go to the store and trade it in for a different one. GRADE: C