Jumanji: The Next Level Delivers More Cast, Less Fun

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Jumanji: The Next Level opens in the US on 12/13/19.

There are a handful of movie sequels that have surpassed the original: Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Captain America: Civil War, Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo. Toy Story 2 and maybe The Godfather II could also be on that list. How about Jumanji: The Next Level which hits theaters in the US on 12/12/19?

Finally...there's something even the presence of Dwayne Johnson can't improve. It would be more accurate to call it "The Next Level Down." There was a genuine sense of fun and enery to be found in the first reboot of the Robin Williams classic. While the cast tried hard to recapture that elusive chemistry that made the previous film work so well, the sequel failed to reach the next level this time.

When it comes to sequels, I think the director has two choices: put familiar characters in new peril (as most sequels seem to do), or do things in new, unexpected ways from start to finish (like Rian Johnson did in Star Wars: The Last Jedi). In most cases, I think the first option is best. Fans of the previous film come to the theatre with a certain set of expectations, and the director should typically try to meet or exceed those expectations. When you go too far astray from the audience’s expectations, you end up with a lot of fan backlash, as with the eighth Star Wars film. I think some directors (and actors) today think they have to challenge the fans in some way. To be fair, fandom does sometimes go a little off the rails. But more often than not, a successful sequel gives the fans more of what they want. That keeps them coming back for still more sequels, which in turn makes the studios even more money. Jacob Kasdan, the son of Hollywood legend Lawrence Kasdan, showed what he was capable of with the relaunch of the Jumanji franchise in 2017, taking it away from the board game concept and rebranding it as a video game world come to life. For the sequel, he played it too safe, and the result is a repetitive adventure without the charm and heart of the original.

I wish the kids had continued as their previous avatars: Spencer (Alex Wolff) should have been in the Dr. Smolder Bravestone avatar (Dwayne Johnson). Bethany (Madison Iseman) in Professor Sheldon Oberon’s form (Jack Black), Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain) in Mouse Finbar’s avator (Kevin Hart) and Martha (Morgan Turner) in Ruby Roundhouse’s form (Karen Gillian). Instead, we get the rather odd inclusions of Spenser’s grandfather, Eddie (Danny DeVito) and his estranged friend and colleague Milo (Danny Glover). This sets the first half of the film on a mostly slow pace as we try to associate familiar avatars with different players. Why not just put DeVito and Glover in new avatars? The dangers they face don’t feel very “next level”--random stampedes of angry and surprisingly strong ostriches, capable of matching speeds with a Jeep while tearing the roof off--and marauding mandrills--large, blue-tinted and ferocious monkeys. Otherwise it’s mostly Johnson showing that The Rock can’t cook up even a decent Danny DeVito impression, or at least not that I could smell. Kevin Hart was the clear champion in that regard, channeling his inner Danny Glover pretty convincingly. Meanwhile, Jack Black is less funny as the avatar of an athletic African American male than he is as a pretty blond teenager and Karen Gillian is her usual entertaining self and the only avatar whose real world counterpart remained unchanged.  So what about Spencer and Bethany? Spencer took on a new avatar in the form of rapper and actress Awkwafina as Ming Fleetfoot, your standard rogue archetype, and Bethany, well…she’s now a horse, a black stallion named Cyclone, voiced by Frank “Scooby Doo” Welker. I just shrugged and tried not think about how bizarre of a choice that was. Why not make DeVito the horse? His Grandpa Eddie character was already a horse’s ass by that point anyway.

In an attempt to raise the tension, the avatars find themselves losing one or more of their three precious in-game lives early and often. The film also introduces an entirely unnecessary adversary. Where the first film—or even the original—pitted the players against the land of Jumanji and all of its natural dangers, Jumanji : The Next Level raises the stakes with Jurgen the Brutal, a “Boss Fight” level villain played by Game of Thrones  “Hound”  Rory McCann, responsible for murdering Bravestone’s parents long ago, according to the game’s lore. I suppose Kasdan needed to do something to punch up the difficulty level other than chase the heroes with ostriches and mandrills, but it felt rater unimaginative in a world where giant tree snakes might chomp one of your three lives away at any random moment. They should have stuck with the expectation that Jumanji itself is all the threat anyone playing the game should need. I found myself completely uninterested in the Jurgen character, and only slightly interested in the squabbling old timers hashing out their differences through Hart and Johnson’s bodies. Oh, wait—they did have “villains” in the previous films, didn’t they? Bobby Cannavale played a professor who was possessed by a magic stone and Jonathan Hyde played a determined hunter, right? I’m still not excited. At least those characters seemed believable within the context of the world in which they existed. Does Jumanji seem like the king of place that would have a “warlord” in it? Maybe a witch doctor or a shaman, sure, but this warlord stuff seemed quite the stretch. I much prefer lethal “Indiana Jones” style puzzles built into ancient ruins and dangerous flora and fauna over another one-dimensional villain. If I want that, I’ll watch the news.

Maybe I should have watched Jumanji: Welcome To The Jungle again first, because Johnson clobbered anything and everything that came close to him like Popeye on spinach. I don’t remember his character being so cartoon-strong the last time, and even if he was I would view that as a problem as well—Smolder Bravestone is a “beginner’s difficulty level” character. It’s too easy for him, and frankly Johnson has become a good enough actor that his characters shouldn’t always need to rely on muscle to get out of a jam.

Finally, they manage to rope the “Lost Boy,” Alex (Colin Hanks in the real world, Nick Jonas as avatar “Seaplane” McDonough in the game), who spent 20 real world years trapped in Jumanji in the previous film, back into the game to help rescue Spencer. If I’d been trapped for 20 years in a dangerous world like Jumanji, I don’t know that I’d be real eager to run back into it to try to rescue someone else. Like much of the movie’s plot points, it felt forced and unnecessary.

Jumanji: The Next Chapter will still make a boatload of money and probably get yet another sequel, but this one feels more like the kind of goofy adventure flick you expect to find in the clearance bin at Wal-Mart rather than a big budget action film featuring the biggest name in entertainment today. I look forward to seeing Johnson in The King, a Robert Zemecks film about the founder of Hawai’I, and Black Adam, the companion film to the excellent DC superhero blockbuster Shazam! As for future Jumanji films, I think I’ll just stay home and find an adventure more to my liking on my PlayStation.

Grade: 
3.0 / 5.0