Although the original Jumanji was a decent-sized hit in 1995, no one was expecting 2017’s Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle to clear $400 million at the U.S. box office alone and nearly a billion worldwide. But evidently there was a lot of nostalgic good will for the brand, and love for its lead actors. While Welcome to the Jungle no one’s idea of a great movie, it was passable fantasy entertainment that paid dutiful homage to its predecessor and coasted largely on the charisma of its game cast.
Such unprecedented success for an IP that had been largely dormant for two decades was not going to slip away without Sony Pictures cashing in for all it’s worth, so here we are two years later with Jumanji: The Next Level cued up at theaters everywhere. And if we sound like we emphasizing the business side of the film more than usual, that’s because The Next Level is a perfect example of a corporate cash cow designed to replicate the exact formula that made the last entry work, with an extra wrinkle or two. It’s intermittently enjoyable, again leans on its cast, and fizzles away in one’s memory like Alka-Seltzer.
The Next Level (directed again by Jake Kasdan) begins with an update on our four friends from the first film: Spencer (Alex Wolff) is away at college in New York City but misses Brantford, New Hampshire, his new(ish) girlfriend Martha (Morgan Turner) and friends Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain) and Bethany (Madison Iseman), all of whom shared the previous film’s adventure inside the Jumanji video game. Yet he doesn’t go to meet his friends when he arrives back home for the holidays, instead deciding to go down to his basement and, against his better judgment, putter with the broken pieces of the Jumanji console.
Sure enough, Spencer goes missing and it’s up to the other three to find him. But before they can even select their avatars, they are sucked into the world of Jumanji, this time joined by Spencer’s grandfather Eddie (Danny DeVito) and Eddie’s estranged friend Milo (Danny Glover), who just happened to pick this day to stop by and try to mend fences with his former business partner. When they get back into the game, only Martha is once again inhabiting the same avatar she was in previously, scantily clad commando Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan); Eddie is now inside man-mountain team leader Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson), while Fridge has taken over as Professor Oberon (Jack Black), and Milo is inhabiting “Mouse” Finbar (Kevin Hart). Bethany, meanwhile, has mysteriously not joined the game at all.
In addition to finding Spencer, the team must get their hands on a mystical stone that has been seized by a warlord with a connection to Bravestone’s past. But really, the mechanics of the plot are completely slight and unimportant, merely serving as a loose connective thread for a series of crazy adventures involving new animals, daring escapes, and high-kicking battles. Meanwhile, the comedy comes mostly from watching Dwayne Johnson and Kevin Hart do impersonations of DeVito and Glover respectively, with varying degrees of effectiveness.
There are a few more surprises along the way, with Bethany enlisting an old friend to help her get back in the game and Awkwafina showing up as a new avatar named Ming. But for the most part, there’s very little that’s new in the way of character development, and a lot of time spent with Eddie and Milo as they test out their new bodies and work through their issues, all while dodging massive flocks of giant ostriches and a nasty army of vicious baboons. Wittingly or not, Jumanji: The Next Level functions more or less like a video game does, repeating much of what captivated about the first film with a few twists.
Hart gets some mileage out of playing a version of Danny Glover, but Johnson is less natural trying to do his interpretation of a grumpy Danny DeVito. In fact, Johnson takes a bit of a step back through the film’s first two-thirds, allowing Black, Hart, and Gillan to carry more of the load this time. All three get the job done, with Black on point as usual and Gillan having a more take-charge approach–even getting to put on a few more sensible clothes as the gang heads into a wintry climate.
When all is said and done, Jumanji: The Next Level manages to make two hours pass pleasantly enough but has little happening under the surface. There are some genuinely exciting moments–like the aforementioned fight with the baboons on a swinging, tilting set of bridges–and a few good laughs as well. It’s as slight as the last film, and leaves some interesting ideas unexplored, but it will serve as popcorn fare for families looking for something to see before or after Star Wars. And yes, before it gets too deep into the end credits, it sets up a sequel.
Jumanji: The Next Level is out in theaters this Friday, Dec. 13.
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Don Kaye is a Los Angeles-based entertainment journalist and associate editor of Den of Geek. Other current and past outlets include Syfy, United Stations Radio Networks, Fandango, MSN, RollingStone.com and many more. Read more of his work here. Follow him on Twitter @donkaye