Fans of the Jumanji franchise will not be disappointed with this latest gathering of reluctant heroes within the now infamous action/fantasy survival game. We can consider this a sequel to 2017’s Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, which rebooted the 1995 origin story starring the late Robin Williams. Since then, the board game that trapped Alan Parrish in a terrifying jungle world for decades is now a broken down Atari-like vintage gaming console and cartridge that beckons players with a seducing jungle beat and pulsing electronic glow. Touching the device is all that’s required to physically transport players into the world of Jumanji as avatars of their choosing. Or, in the case of Jumanji: The Next Level, this happens without even choosing their character, swept atom by atom into the sinister collection of circuit boards and wires. As one character says upon beginning the transformation, “I hate this part!”
As a result of the game’s semi-awareness, we have a few new cast members for this outing. All of the previous teens and alter egos are here, along with Danny Devito, Danny Glover and Awkwafina. Devito and Glover are Eddie and Milo respectively, two former restaurant owners, partners who need to work through issues of aging and abandonment. Eddie is Spencer’s grandfather, recovering from hip surgery and sharing a room with his grandson, home on Christmas break from NYU. Spencer has returned to his anxiety-ridden, asthma inhaler dependent, unconfident former self, longing for the thrill and self-assuredness that he experienced as Dr. Smoulder Bravestone in the previous film. Eddie’s advice? “Go out there and get it. It’s all downhill from here. This is the best it gets. Getting old sucks.” Inspired, Spencer goes into the basement and enters the game, but emerges as Ming Fleetfoot (Awkwafina) instead of Bravestone. His friends come to the rescue, and that’s where the game makes a few of its own moves.
If this is confusing, it gets worse. The only consistent transformation is the avatar Ruby Roundhouse, played again by Karen Gillan. Many of the same body-swapping comedic elements get laughs once more, but Jack Black was funnier when channeling a pretty cheerleader in Jumanji 2. Anyone who winds up in Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s body spends time touching and admiring his heavily muscled physique, and the gag still works. And although Johnson struggles with DeVito’s gruff, New York persona, it isn’t that much of a distraction. Kevin Hart is extremely funny no matter who he becomes, and there’s a ton of action to keep the audience from thinking about anything for long.
The film regains its previous footing when the characters discover a glowing green pool that allows arbitrary body-swapping within the game. This re-establishes prior roles for a couple of characters just as two more previous players enter the game, one as a horse.
What? Just see the movie. It will make more sense.
There’s a nice cameo appearance by an actor from the original film that brings the story full circle. Producer Dwayne Johnson promised this Easter egg while the film was in production. It also sets up Jumanji 4, despite general agreement by the teens that they’re “never going in there again!” With that, drums begin beating, a herd of ostriches stampedes through town and we capture the feel of the original movie once more.
Like the Jumanji game, box office receipts have a pulsing drumbeat of their own. This franchise is a huge moneymaker. There’s little doubt that there will be a fourth and perhaps fifth film before the concept grows tired. But sometimes when things get older, as Danny DeVito comes to realize by the end of the film, “It’s a gift.”
What’s next? Jumanji: AI?
Jumanji: The Next Level (2019) runs 2 hours 3 minutes and is rated PG-13.
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