This sequel doesn’t take it to The Next Level.
When news of Sony’s 2017 Jumanji reboot was announced, it seemed like another in a long line of bleak Hollywood nostalgia projects. And in many ways it was just that, a rather typical studio blockbuster sprinkled with a few allusions to the 1995 original, like a brief reference to the late Robin Williams. In tweaking the concept from board game to the video game, the 2017 film Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle had a promising cast that played to its strengths. While that film ultimately didn’t live up to its potential, Jumanji: The Next Level fails to live up even to those modest heights.
At the start of Jumanji: The Next Level, a year or two has passed since the events of the previous film, and our central quartet is preparing to return home for the holidays after a semester spent apart at college. They make plans to meet up for brunch, but Spencer (Alex Wolff) never shows. Soon enough the familiar sounds of booming drums confirm for his friends what we already know: Spencer has returned to the game, and they must go back in to save him.
The reasoning is thin: that the anxious Spencer, feeling isolated away from his friends, missed the comfort of residing within confident, robust Dr. Bravestone is understandable, but that he would act on this impulse by re-entering the demonstrably malignant game alone, standing up his friends in the process, is harder to buy. Such contrivances might be overlooked if, as in the first movie, that video game world offered some genuine pleasure, but unfortunately The Next Level fails to provide it.
Director Jake Kasdan and co-writers Scott Rosenberg and Jeff Pinkner, all three returning from Welcome to the Jungle, do attempt to shake things up. The introduction of Danny DeVito and Danny Glover as Spencer’s curmudgeonly grandpa Eddie and his ex-friend and business partner Milo is one prominent example. But the filmmakers seem reluctant to commit to any of their new ideas. Along with Eddie and Milo getting inadvertently sucked into the game, something seems to have gone wrong, and the players are unable to select their avatar. Martha (Morgan Turner) lucks out and randomly gets placed in her old avatar, martial arts expert Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan), but everyone else is in a new virtual body, and Bethany (memorably taken over by Jack Black in the 2017 film) is left out of the game entirely. In the best version of this movie, this could be an opportunity to wring more comedy out of fresh juxtapositions of personalities, but the new mismatches don’t stick.
For instance, the concept of Danny DeVito being stuck in Dwayne Johnson’s body should provide plenty of room for humor—and even, given his character’s hip replacement, pathos. But the best Johnson can manage is a spotty New York accent. Kevin Hart is the only one of the bunch who acquits himself well, impressively nailing Danny Glover’s distinct mannerisms. As the team’s resident zoologist, he’s also responsible for the film’s funniest running bit, with the comically long-winded Milo unable to communicate crucial information in time to help the others.
On the whole, the ensemble never fully connects with their respective characters the way they did in the previous movie. Strangely enough, the filmmakers seem to recognize this, introducing a way for the group to swap avatars, but when they eventually reconvene in their previous arrangement it only feels more dissatisfying, like a half-hearted act of fan service.
Without the previous film’s strong character development, we’re just left with its most forgettable elements: another tedious adventure plot concerning a mystical jewel, another generic villain (played with generic menace by “Game of Thrones” star Rory McCann), more lackluster action sequences set in drab CGI locales. A generous reading might argue that many of these weaknesses are in line with the video game setting. Nondescript side characters, like the affable guide Nigel (Rhys Darby) and Dr. Bravestone’s former flame (Dania Ramirez) are supposed to be NPCs, after all. But that doesn’t make the film any less dull, and as Welcome to the Jungle made evident, all it takes is one or two interesting ideas for an otherwise dreary blockbuster to stand out from the pack. Unfortunately, this sequel doesn’t take it to The Next Level.