'Jumanji: The Next Level': Film Review

A couple of rollicking action scenes make up for some lost charm.
12/13/2019

The kids-turned-adult heroes of the previous 'Jumanji' are joined by oldsters Danny DeVito and Danny Glover in Jake Kasdan's sequel.

If you were an asthmatic, insecure teen who had once been able to have adventures in the body of The Rock, what are the odds you'd be content to return to your old life forever? Even if it meant risking death (and possibly dragging your friends into peril as well), mightn't you go back for one more taste of impossible masculinity?

And so we have Jake Kasdan's Jumanji: The Next Level, in which a mysterious magic video game once more transforms four teens into — well, not necessarily into the intrepid jungle explorers they became in 2017's franchise starter, but something like that. That pic (also directed by Kasdan) scored family-film points for displaying comic chops parents could enjoy alongside their kids; this installment is a clear case of diminishing returns, but enjoyable action set pieces and a surprise or two near the end should keep parental grousing to a minimum.

Having moved on to separate cities for college and other pursuits, the last movie's heroes have plans to reunite over winter break. But while freshly minted do-gooder Bethany (Madison Iseman), newly self-confident Martha (Morgan Turner) and football star Fridge (Ser'Darius Blain) are gung ho to see each other, Alex Wolff's Spencer drags his feet. He and Martha, after connecting in the previous film, have put their romance on hold; he's having a hard time hanging on to the create-your-own-life spirit he found when an old gaming console transported the kids into an alternate reality, forcing them to beat many challenges before they could emerge safely. Having to share his childhood bedroom with his Grandpa Eddie (Danny DeVito), who's recovering from hip surgery, only makes him feel more pathetic. So he digs up the old game and disappears into it again.

Once they realize what Alex has done, and believing he's unlikely to survive Jumanji alone, his friends agree to enter the game as well. Inadvertently, they leave Bethany behind, instead pulling both Eddie and his old estranged friend Milo (Danny Glover) in with them. Any viewer not quite clear on how this you-become-the-game magic works can rest easy: When two septuagenarians get transformed into avatars in a real-world video game, the kids they're with must explain things to them many, many times.

The twist here is that the mortals don't become the same characters they played the last time they entered this world. Spencer's whole reason to reenter this realm was to again become the manly and suave Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson); instead, he has been transformed into a pickpocket played by Awkwafina, and it's his grandfather who finds himself inhabiting Bravestone's body. The zoologist played by Kevin Hart, formerly the avatar of Fridge, is now host to Milo, and Fridge has been downgraded to the body of Jack Black's nerdy cartographer Shelly Oberon. Martha, at least, is relieved to still be in the Lara Croft-y form of Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan).

A large part of the first pic's pleasure came from watching adult actors, very sure in their screen personae, pretend to be children who were awed (or disgusted, as the case may be) by their new bodies and abilities. This time around, that getting-to-know-you phase is much less fun. Black's attempt to channel the speech patterns of a 20-ish black man won't sit well with everyone in the audience (he was on much sturdier ground last time, playing a narcissistic teen girl); but in comedic terms, Johnson's take on a kvetching grandfather falls flatter. We may have finally discovered something The Rock can't do.

This problem will be remedied late in the film, and in a truly inspired way, but the story spends far too long in this space where actors slog around in ill-fitting roles. Hart is by far the most successful here, clearly enjoying doing his version of a genteel Glover; it's hard to explain how emphasizing the second syllable of "buttocks" makes sense in this context, especially when referring to a horde of angry mandrills, but Hart gets a laugh with that kind of choice.

The mission our heroes are given is even flimsier than the one in the first movie, but it affords many changes of scenery, from ice-mountain castles to North African medinas to a sea of desert dunes stalked by hundreds of fast-moving, deadly ostriches. One especially involving sequence requires the friends to navigate a maze of suspended bridge segments that mostly lead to nowhere, then spin unpredictably to lead to even more nowheres. Just as they're about to make sense of the puzzle, those angry mandrills arrive.

Given how well the film does with giant, totally imaginary action scenes like this, it's disappointing that FX artists don't try a little harder to make small-scale moments look real. The acrobatic exploits of Ruby Roundhouse, for instance, look distractingly fake at times. Maybe that's deliberate, given that this is after all a video game — but it's not at the same level of believable rendering we see elsewhere.

The role of bad guy here offers little to do for actor Rory McCann, who brought so much to the tortured brute he played on Game of Thrones. But as he becomes part of the action, an increasingly busy plot distracts from many dramatic shortcomings. Viewers who think the movie hangs onto enjoyability as precariously as an action hero with seven fingertips clawed into a crumbling cliffside may sigh with relief when, once they're safe back home, our young stars swear enthusiastically never to go back to the world of Jumanji. Those viewers would be wise to note that nobody swore the studio wouldn't someday soon bring the world of Jumanji to them.

Production companies: Matt Tolmach Productions, Seven Bucks Productions, The Detective Agency
Distributor: Columbia Pictures
Cast: Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Karen Gillan, Jack Black, Danny DeVito, Danny Glover, Alex Wolff, Madison Iseman, Morgan Turner, Ser'Darius Blain, Awkwafina, Nick Jonas, Rory McCann
Director: Jake Kasdan
Screenwriters: Jake Kasdan, Jeff Pinkner, Scott Rosenberg
Producers: Dwayne Johnson, Dany Garcia, Hiram Garcia, Matt Tolmach, William Teitler, Jake Kasdan
Director of photography: Gyula Pados
Production designer: Bill Brzeski
Costume designer: Louise Mingenbach
Editors: Steve Edwards, Mark Helfrich, Tara Timpone
Composer: Henry Jackman
Casting directors: Nicole Abellera, Jeanne McCarthy

Rated PG-13, 123 minutes