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[This story contains spoilers for Jumanji: The Next Level.]
The 1995 film Jumanji, based on the Chris Van Allsburg children’s book, takes very little time before introducing a coterie full of terrifying jungle animals to the real modern world, where jungle animals don’t belong. Over the last few years, two sequels to Jumanji have arrived in theaters. In 2017, Welcome to the Jungle became one of the year’s biggest hits thanks to its all-star cast and likable, surprisingly funny script. This weekend marks the arrival of that film’s sequel, The Next Level, which waits until the very end to once again unleash the animals of Jumanji on the real world. And the ending sets up a clear sequel, much more so than the previous installment.
Though the quartet of teenagers who were first sucked into the video game version of Jumanji have returned in The Next Level, their personal foibles make it so they arrive in the game in much different packages than before. The gawky Spencer (Alex Wolff) arrives as a new character, pickpocket Ming Fleetfoot (Awkwafina). The previously awkward but now more confident Martha (Morgan Turner) is still Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan). Football player Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain) is now occupying the body of cartographer Shelly Oberon (Jack Black). In a twist, the avatars Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson) and Mouse Finbar (Kevin Hart) have entirely new owners. Those would be Spencer’s grouchy granddad Eddie (Danny DeVito) and his old ex-business partner Milo (Danny Glover), respectively, who are inadvertently sucked into the game when Spencer’s friends try to find their missing buddy.
The Next Level finds a lot of humor in having Johnson and Hart play characters who are so wildly different from their own personas. While it was funny enough to have Johnson as a nerdy character and Hart as a high school jock in Welcome to the Jungle, they have a lot of fun as the irascible DeVito and wizened Glover. (Hart, in particular, is extremely adept in his impersonation.) But while the character identities have changed, The Next Level is fully contained to the video game itself. One of the early surprises is that Spencer kept the remnants of the game, even after the four teenagers all but destroyed it with a bowling ball at the end of Welcome to the Jungle. It’s when the other teens realize Spencer is once again inside Jumanji that they make the choice to try and rescue him.
But after the day is won and the end credits begin to roll, there’s one more surprise. The final scene takes place at a local diner. (The diner used to be a restaurant run by Milo and Eddie when they were younger and still close friends.) There, after Eddie reconnects with the diner owner Nora (Bebe Neuwirth, reprising her role from the original Jumanji), the four kids are stunned to see something truly unexpected: a herd of ostriches like those they encountered while in the video game itself. This opens up Jumanji to a much more intriguing possibility for the third new film than either of its predecessors had.
If there’s any flaw in The Next Level, it’s that the story preceding that final surprise feels more half-baked than that of the original. As in Welcome to the Jungle, a grim villain (played in the first film by Bobby Cannavale, while Rory McCann of Game of Thrones plays a new baddie in the new film) lusts for power as embodied by a precious jewel. As in Welcome to the Jungle, the four teens struggle in their roles within the game. (The ditzy blonde Bethany, formerly seen as Shelly, is delayed from arriving in the game initially. When she does, she’s placed inside the body of a horse.) While the new film is vastly more convoluted — a lot of the first half is dedicated to the younger characters trying to explain to Milo and Eddie things like what Jumanji is, and what video games are, over and over — it arguably takes too long to get to its most exciting and novel twist.
What the end of The Next Level promises is something of a more direct riff on the original film. There’s not much detail presented in terms of how the animals from Jumanji make their way to the real world. All we know is that a repairman in Spencer’s basement is fascinated by the Jumanji game system; after we see him touch it, the ostriches are shown dashing through town. The most tantalizing possibility isn’t just that we’ll get to see how a more modern version of the adventure of the 1995 film would play out with more modern technology, though. It’s that we might get to learn about the game’s history.
What do we really know about the game of Jumanji? The details of who created it, or why, or how it works are all absent, and the kind of information that could make for a fascinating twist. Within the world of the Jumanji video game, we might even get to learn about the human reference points for Smolder Bravestone or Ruby Roundhouse. That, at least, is a creative avenue worth exploring so the new film can still incorporate Johnson, Hart, Black and Gillan. The other fun idea to explore would be how the character dynamics shift among the four teenagers. Spencer, for one, desires to go back to Jumanji to be like Smolder Bravestone, but that’s because he’s as far from Bravestone in the real world. How would an average guy fend off murderous animals when he doesn’t have video game-like powers that ensure his safety?
Jumanji: The Next Level feels an awful lot like a traditional sequel: there’s more of the same that made the predecessor such a big hit at the box office. Though it has its charms, it’s really the mid-credits scene that implies a vastly more intriguing story to come. Returning the Jumanji franchise back to the start, with terrifying animals running rampant in suburban America, will be fun enough. Upending the lead characters (and possibly some version of their avatars) implies that a follow-up movie might have a lot more creative possibilities than the current movie did. At least this time, the ending opens doors instead of closing them.
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Behind The Screen
Behind The Screen