Zathura: A Space Adventure, the 2005 sequel to the original 1995 Jumanji, proved to be a rather weird story, erring on the side of intense and frightening rather than funny and ingenious. The original Jumanji featured the mad antics of Robin Williams, making it tough to remake, but 2017’s Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle was a surprise hit for Columbia Pictures, earning a solid 87% audience rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Always charismatic Dwayne Johnson headed a splendid cast in a story where the gamers were pulled into an immersive alternate reality with a video game sensibility but dangers all its own.
For Jumanji: The Next Level, everyone’s back, starting with the four kids who have all now graduated high school and proceeded with their individual lives. They are the dorky Spencer (Alex Wolff), now a freshman at NYU, now-popular Martha (Morgan Turner), charity worker Bethany (Madison Iseman) and Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain), a budding college football star. Bethany and Martha have remained close friends and suggest to the other two that they meet up for brunch during their mutual Christmas breaks. Fridge is in, but Spencer remains quiet; he’s having a tough time in New York City and has even suggested that he and Martha “take a break” from their relationship as a result. Very contemporary, very believable.
Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle ended with them ceremoniously destroying the game system and that dangerous Jumanji game cartridge, but Spencer secretly saved all the pieces and later reassembled the game. He heads home for Christmas break and finds that his grandfather Eddie (a hilarious Danny DeVito) has moved in to recover from hip surgery. Eddie has his own issues, both the health challenges of getting older and his estranged relationship with former business partner Milo (Danny Glover). Milo really wants to mend things and Eddie’s avoiding the issue. Milo shows up at the door after multiple calls are ignored and the resultant breakfast is quite funny and poignant both.
When Spencer is a no show at Christmas brunch, his friends get justifiably concerned. They head to his house to ensure all is okay, just to be shocked to find the Jumanji game in the basement and Spencer’s abandoned cellphone. Before you can say “watch out!” they’re pulled into the game world again. But not quite as you’d expect: Eddie, Milo, Fridge, and Martha are suddenly inhabiting the adventurer avatars of Dr. Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson), Professor Oberon (Jack Black), Mouse Finbar (Kevin Hart) and Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan). Spencer, they eventually learn, has shown up in the game as the Asian cat burglar Ming Fleetfoot (Awkwafina). But where’s Bethany?
With movies like Ready Player One offering astonishing visuals in a virtual world, the challenge for the Jumanji: The Next Level team was to simultaneously deliver great visual effects while keeping the story lively and funny. For the most part, director Jake Kasdan manages just that, with plenty of laughs (did I mention how hilarious DeVito is as cranky grandpa Eddie?) and some impressive action scenes. It’s not perfect, the ostrich stampede might not have looked quite right, and the floating bridge mandrill attack got blurry at times, but overall, it’s really good fun.
Where the movie’s best is when the characters are interacting, both their avatar personalities and the underlying characters from the real world, with their concerns and fears about moving into adulthood. The scenes with Jurgen the Brutal (Rory McCann) are particularly excellent, especially Jurgen’s interaction with Ruby as they slam through the room. And, of course, Bravestone (Johnson) is funny just about every time he’s onscreen, particularly when he’s channelling DeVito’s grumbly grandpa persona, but I admit it, I’m a Dwayne Johnson fan too.
The biggest problem with Jumanji: The Next Level is pacing. It’s hard to keep a movie on full throttle for two hours and some of the quieter, calmer scenes run on a bit too long or try to be too serious, resulting in moments that come across a bit cliché and superficial in an action-comedy.
Still, I really enjoyed Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle and I think that this sequel does a very good job of picking up the story and offering up some new ideas (body swaps!) while leaning heavily on the formula that made the first so entertaining. Jumanji: The Next Level is a good, not great, addition to the franchise, it’s definitely worth seeing, and I hope that we’ll get a third movie in a few years too.