Film Review – Jumanji: The Next Level
Jumanji: The Next Level
One of the reasons Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (2017) was such a pleasant surprise was the chemistry of the main cast. You had a group of kids – Spencer (Alex Wolff), Fridge (Ser-Darius Blain), Bethany (Madison Iseman), and Martha (Morgan Turner) – getting magically transported into a video game, turning into specific video game “avatars” (played by Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Jack Black, and Karen Gillan, respectively). Not only did this allow the adult stars to play around with their on-screen personas, but it also allowed for the kid characters to better understand and accept their unique traits and differences.
This idea is further explored – although to a lesser degree – in the sequel, Jumanji: The Next Level (2019). Director Jake Kasdan returns (along with co-writers Jeff Pinkner and Scott Rosenberg) to bring the same kind of earnest adventure tale, this time taking the cast out of the jungle and into barren deserts and snowy mountaintop castles. If you enjoyed the first film, then in all likelihood you will enjoy this newest entry. This is perfectly acceptable family fun, focusing primarily on entertainment and heart. It doesn’t take too many risks, but that isn’t a bad thing. During this holiday season, you could do a lot worse.
The big twist this time around is the introduction of two new characters: Spencer’s grandfather Eddie (Danny DeVito) and Eddie’s longtime friend and business partner, Milo (Danny Glover). When Spencer gets sucked back into the Jumanji video game, Fridge, Bethany, and Martha take it upon themselves to rescue him. Problem is, when they get transported, Eddie and Milo get brought in also. This causes a mix up in avatars, with Eddie now played by Dwayne Johnson, Milo played by Kevin Hart, and Fridge played by Jack Black. Got all that? There will be a quiz later.
Having the adult stars now play older characters make for The Next Level’s biggest laughs. The narrative allows for characters to switch avatars, so we get a chance to see the adult stars try to flex their performance muscles. Kevin Hart’s impression of Danny Glover’s slow verbal delivery is never not funny, especially when the team desperately needs information from him. Milo takes such a long time to explain things that it puts everyone in harm’s way. Jack Black gets to showcase his versatility, playing different characters (male and female) with distinction – we’re never confused over which character he is at any given time. Sadly, Dwayne Johnson’s impression of Danny DeVito is not nearly as good, as his accent and facial expressions come off cringe worthy. DeVito has a voice and presence that are noticeably his, and Johnson is unable to translate that successfully. On the flip side, we get the nice addition of Awkwafina playing the avatar Ming. She jumps into the mix easily, also playing multiple characters with clarity.
The plot involves our heroes tracking down a vicious warrior named Jurgen the Brutal (Rory McCann) and retrieving a mystical item that will help them all return to the real world. The story is of no consequence, it’s merely a thin string to hang a number of action set pieces on. Kasdan and his team conjure up a number of sequences, from a desert chase with an army of wild ostriches, an elevated escape from an army of wild monkeys, and a battle against an army of Jurgen’s underlings. That’s a lot of armies to deal with. Most of the action is done in the usual fashion – with CGI renderings. We know the actors aren’t really being chased by ostriches, just as much as we know they aren’t actually dangling from a rope bridge above a thousand-foot drop. But because this is set in the world of a video game, we kind of accept the artificiality of it.
In terms of character, the biggest development is not with the kids but between Eddie and Milo. Eddie and Milo were close friends, but certain events of the past caused a rift between the two. What’s interesting is watching their story play out mostly without DeVito and Glover being present. That’s a credit to the performers that play them, to make us understand and invest in their friendship even though it’s done through impression (Johnson’s attempt notwithstanding). Their story is handed off through multiple avatars like a hot potato, and yet we never lose sight of how it changes from one point to another.
The best parts of Jumanji: The Next Level has nothing to do with the plot or even the action scenes. It has all to do with these actors getting a chance to have fun and play around with their performances. Just like in the previous installment, the ability of avatar characters to take on different personalities allows the actors to subvert the ideas of masculinity, femininity, toughness, and perseverance. The fact that it takes place within the confines of a magical adventure is just an added bonus.