Note: This is a spoiler-free review of Jumanji: The Next Level, but it does cover plot details from the previous films.
It’s Christmas time and, once again, here comes the sound of drums. The belated Jumanji sequel Welcome To The Jungle was 2017’s biggest unexpected hit, wooing family audiences through the festive season and the early months of 2018, so inevitably, director Jake Kasdan has brought back the entire cast – led by Dwayne Johnson, Jack Black, Karen Gillan and Kevin Hart – for The Next Level.
If you saw the 1995 original (arguably the better of Robin Williams’ two 1990s takes on Peter Pan) but skipped the more comedic follow-up, Jumanji has transformed from a board game into a video game cartridge in order to ensnare new players. Like a film that didn’t know it would turn out to be Sony’s highest-grossing release of all time up to that point, the sequel’s final throwaway gag showed the cartridge being destroyed by the teenaged main characters.
Rather than returning to the last savepoint, this threequel has a miserable Spencer (Alex Wolff) unwisely repair the game while home from university for the Christmas break. When his friends Martha (Morgan Turner), Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain) and Bethany (Madison Iseman) visit to check how he’s doing, they find only Spencer’s granddad (Danny DeVito) bickering with his old friend Milo (Danny Glover). However, it’s not long before they’re all back in the now-malfunctioning world of Jumanji and have to fight their way out again while controlling very different avatars.
One of the most enjoyable parts of Welcome To The Jungle was watching the grown-up stars acting against type as the younger players, with Johnson as the asthmatic geek and Black as an Insta-famous teenage girl. As a result, The Next Level leans even harder on the body-hopping aspect of things, having characters switch avatars at the outset and then throughout this one.
Most immediately, this enables Johnson and Hart to play the comic-relief supporting characters for a change while Gillan and Black, the scene-stealers from last time around, take more of a lead. By now, Black is an old hand at this kind of family adventure film, but it’s fun to watch Gillan’s Lara Croft parody Ruby Roundhouse shoulder more of the heroics, too. This feels like a long and winding way of putting an actor of her talents at the forefront of a big action movie, but we’re not complaining – look, they’ve given her nunchucks!
Without having to pull their weight so much in the convoluted plot mechanics, Johnson and Hart are freed up to be funnier this time. It’s so counter-intuitive for a film that spent so much time on exposition last time around to introduce two older characters who need it all explaining to them again throughout the first half of the film. However, every time this threatens to get tiresome, we’re picked up again by Johnson’s surreal DeVito impression and Hart’s pitch-perfect take on Glover.
The film carries on finding new spins on these comic dynamics all the way through, and it just about covers for how samey the rest of it feels. It’s a no-brainer to bring the young and old leads back, but it’s less obvious why some of the supporting characters need big roles here. Rhys Darby is always good value, but Bobby Cannavale’s villain is somehow even more underwritten than last time around (think Game Of Thrones meets Immortan Joe), not to mention the needless return of two other characters whose plots were pretty definitively closed last time around.
The film is no worse than Welcome To The Jungle, but not any better either. A new character played by Awkwafina brings a lot to the table (especially in the third act) and there’s an ingenious Uncharted-esque scramble involving hordes of murderous mandrils and some good old-fashioned rope bridges, but over 120 minutes of screen time, the script by Kasdan, Jeff Pinkner, and Scott Rosenberg averages out as more of the same.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing, because as with last time, the main attraction is that enviable ensemble, complete with brilliant new additions, whose talents for impersonating their co-stars have only got funnier in the last couple of years. It’s their impressive work that keeps this from falling into some of the booby traps that other comedy sequels do – never more so than in an extended skit about “Jumanji‘s bravest eunuch” which is rescued from the gates of Hell itself by Black’s comic timing alone.
To put it another way, Jumanji: The Next Level is like the Game Of The Year edition of Welcome To The Jungle. It’s an all-terrains follow-up with a bunch of new content that makes it worth the double-dip for franchise fans, but it essentially offers the same structure and a (not unwelcome) revisitation of Kasdan’s last run out. But if nothing else, the already brilliant cast has levelled up magnificently.
Jumanji: The Next Level is in cinemas from 13 December.