“Jumanji: The Next Level” (Rated B)
Cast: Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Karen Gillan, Jack Black
If this had been the film that revived the “Jumanji” film franchise two years ago, it’s quite likely this would have been a review on some other sequel to a reimagined movie series (or a live-action remake of an old Disney cartoon, or another comic book-based action flick).
But “Jumanji: The Next Level” is not even in the same league as 2017’s “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” – a fantastic surprise just in time for Christmas that year that blew audiences away with its creative take on a lackluster but popular and largely forgotten film from the 1990s.
Nevermind the massive box office success of “The Next Level” for its opening last weekend ($60.1 million in the U.S., $213 million globally). Most of that is probably the result of goodwill engendered from “Welcome to the Jungle”.
The latest edition has its moments, but a big dose of the magic seems to have vanished.
A quick summary of how we got here: the 1995 “Jumanji” starring the late Robin Williams, based on the eponymous 1981 children’s book, centered on children who find a magical board game and meet a man trapped in the game. While trying to free him, they encounter all sorts of danger.
“Welcome to the Jungle” updated the story, featuring a magical video game that sweeps its angst-filled teenage players into the game and the jungle world of Jumanji, trapping the players as their game avatars.
That last part was the principal key to the success of the film.
Spencer, a gawky, geeky teenage boy, becomes Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s Dr. Smolder Bravestone; Fridge, a husky football player, transforms into tiny Kevin Hart’s miniscule Franklin “Mouse” Finbar; and funniest of all, mean girl Bethany plays as Jack Black’s Professor Sheldon Oberon.
The adjustments to their new game characters and their various quirks, capabilities and limitations became an even more magical experience than the adventure storyline, and more fun to watch than their being pursued by dangerous animals or their quest to complete missions against bad guys.
And while at the end of “Welcome to the Jungle”, I’m sure a good many folks, including myself, felt it would be great to see more of this, “The Next Level” isn’t quite the movie we’d been hoping for.
When Spencer (Alex Wolff) goes back into the fantastical world of Jumanji, pals Martha (Morgan Turner), Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain) and Bethany (Madison Iseman) re-enter the game to bring him home. But the game is now broken and fighting back. Everything the friends know about Jumanji is about to change, as they soon discover there are more obstacles and more danger to overcome.
Along with all the actors who played the teens, the rest of the principal cast returns as well. In addition to Johnson, Hart and Black, we have Karen Gillan and Nick Jonas. There are also new additions, including legends Danny DeVito and Danny Glover, and Awkwafina (“Crazy Rich Asians”).
I won’t spoil it for you, but there is a shakeup with the characters, and that makes for some interesting performances, especially from Hart and Black. But the fact that those interesting performances don’t come across the board from everyone will be disappointing. And largely, “The Next Level” is missing the surprise factor of the original.
Most importantly, there’s a definite sense that it’s playing it all too safe. That’s surprising as this is with largely the same writing team, and the same director, Jake Kasdan.
With the possible exception of visual effects, it just doesn’t push as hard as the previous outing; the laughs aren’t as loud, and the action feels more generic. And that’s even as the characters, for the most part, take more of a back seat to the action.
Generally, with video games, the next level of the game is harder, demonstrating the increased proficiency of the game designer, and requiring greater skills of the players.
In a way, so too is “Jumanji: The Next Level”, in that it will require all the skills you have to sit still to witness a motion picture that will be significantly harder to watch.
• Dwight Strachan is the host/producer of “Morning Blend” on Guardian Radio and station manager. He is a television producer and writer, and an avid TV history and film buff. Email firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on twitter @morningblend969.