Jumanji: The Next Level
This follow-up to 2017's 'Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle' doesn't quite capture the same action-comedy magic, but it comes damn close.
History would suggest that Jumanji: The Next Level is perfectly placed to be a spectacular failure. Beyond the obvious point that sequels almost always fare poorly, there's the fact that its enjoyable predecessor, 2017's Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, falls into the one-trick category — aka kids zapped into a video game and trapped in bodies different to the ones you'd expect. Then, there's the absolute deluge of publicity preceding this follow-up's release, which is generally a bad sign. On paper, the only real source of hope seems to stem from Dwayne Johnson, who rarely makes bad career decisions. But then you remember the horror show that is the Baywatch movie, and you think maybe not even that is true anymore.
And yet, to its credit, Jumanji: The Next Level manages to forge new ground directly atop the old one, all thanks to an inspired twist in its tale. It doesn't quite capture lightning in a bottle again, but boy does it come damn close. Yes, the young same cast (Alex Wolff, Ser'Darius Blain, Morgan Turner and Madison Iseman) is back. Yes, they're again pulled into the video game world of Jumanji — and yes, as their in-game characters (Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Karen Gillan and Jack Black), they must once again find a rare jewel to secure their release. Had the sequel merely switched which avatars the four college kids landed in, the gimmick would've been over before it began, but here's where The Next Level gets clever. While the original quartet plan to enter Jumanji, it doesn't exactly work out that way. Instead, some are pulled in, but so too are curmudgeonly grandpa Eddie (Danny DeVito) and his former business partner Milo (Danny Glover). For anyone who has ever tried to explain a video game or even just a remote control to a grandparent, the struggle that ensues will be painfully and hilariously relatable — and the film exploits it beautifully.
As a result of that narrative twist, returning leads Johnson, Hart, Gillan and Black all play host to new personalities, adding unexpected flavour to the already amusing gender and identity scramble of the original. Johnson and Hart are the standouts, with both offering note-perfect impressions of DeVito and Glover. It's a particular delight to see these actors play so enthusiastically against type — especially Hart, who eschews his fast-talking wisecracks to serve up the vocal equivalent of a car doing 20 kilometres per hour in an 80 zone. Johnson, too, clearly relishes the opportunity to move beyond his traditional 'good guy in a muscle suit' routine, playing someone both unlikeable and entirely out of his element.
There are other key changes, too. The quest within Jumanji isn't the same as last time, meaning that even the veteran players find themselves desperately trying to make sense of it all before their three lives are spent. Like all good video games, the next level is also considerably more difficult. From the get-go, the threats are multiplied and the challenges are more complex. Whether via a flock of deadly ostriches, a bottomless ravine or a jealous lover named Switchblade, death can (and does) come at any moment — and, in this instalment, the characters get down to just one life far sooner. These action sequences are inventive in the vein of the best Pixar films, and the accompanying soundtrack evokes the kind of exhilaration and adventure usually found in an Indiana Jones picture.
Then there's Spencer (Wolff), the awkward and nervous teen who previously became Johnson's Dr. Smolder Bravestone. His desire to regain the confidence that came from that transformation is what leads the gang back inside Jumanji in the first place. Once he's there, he instead finds himself sporting a new avatar: pickpocket Ming Fleetfoot, played by Awkwafina. The actor/rapper puts in a terrific performance, serving up precisely the kind of new character the film needed to build upon the original. Elsewhere, Nick Jonas and Colin Hanks also reprise their roles, while the funniest body swap involves cheerleader Bethany (Iseman) — although we'll leave just what she swaps into as a surprise.
Once again directed by Jake Kasdan — who took over the Jumanji franchise from Joe Johnston, the filmmaker behind the original 1995 movie — perhaps the biggest change is the defter touch with which The Next Level handles its quieter moments. In particular, the unresolved conflict between Eddie and Milo simmers neatly below the surface throughout, and its ultimate resolution proves surprisingly tender for an action-comedy. Without ruining the ending, the film leaves it all but settled that another sequel will be in the works, which seems especially likely after The Next Level set box office records for Sony on its opening weekend in America. As long as the series can maintain the same level of inventiveness and surprise, that's not a bad thing at all.