It’s a dangerous road out there for the movie reboot. In its long journey from conception to theaters, a reinvigorated piece of IP can lose major hit points with an unfortunate miscasting or lackluster trailer; it can lose lives after a run-in with obsessive fans of the original or a failure to win over sufferers of remake fatigue. Then, if it can survive those obstacles and conquer the box office, even that victory is short-lived. That’s the thing about franchises — there’s always another level.
In 2017, Jake Kasdan’s Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, a sequel to 1995’s beloved Robin Williams starrer Jumanji, handily defeated the reboot menace, raking in $962 million worldwide. That film updated the original premise by transforming the titular human-trapping board game into a videogame, with all the attendant devices, and anchoring a cast around Dwayne Johnson. Now, Kasdan advances with Jumanji: The Next Level, which takes the four teens from the previous film back into the alternate reality that almost killed them.
We reconnect with our heroes as they head home for the holidays during their freshman year in college. Martha (Morgan Turner), Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain), and Bethany (Madison Iseman) all seem to be thriving in their new surroundings, but Spencer (Alex Wolff), who felt like he finally had the life he wanted as a high school senior, is struggling to adjust to student life in New York. Wanting to feel confident and in control again, he reassembles the most doomed video game console of all time to revisit Jumanji and re-inhabit the extraordinarily capable body of Dr. Smolder Bravestone (Johnson).
The janky machine is past its prime, however, and skips the part where players get to choose their own avatars. And when Spencer’s friends follow him in order to save him from the dangerous game, they’re in for more than just that surprise — Jumanji has also drawn in Spencer’s cranky grandfather Eddie (Danny DeVito) and his old friend Milo (Danny Glover). (Conveniently for anyone who missed the last one, Martha’s avatar Ruby Roundhouse, played by Karen Gillan, re-explains how everything works for the gaming-illiterate septuagenarians every step of the way.)
Some of the avatar-swapping can lead to moments in poor taste, but for the most part, the talented cast and clever identity reassignments succeed hilariously. Among the avatars, Kevin Hart is a clear standout, delivering a slow-talking impression of Glover that steals the show, and his pairing with a hip-swiveling Johnson as DeVito (“my joints feel like buttah”) makes the most of their comedic chemistry. Jack Black brings back his pitch-perfect teenage princess routine from the previous film, and Awkwafina, as a new avatar whose role we won’t spoil, is uniquely suited to hers as well.
The Next Level packs more humor than its predecessor, but Welcome to the Jungle had the benefit of introducing its quartet of real-world heroes, all of whom had easily recognizable teenage fears and prejudices for which a bit of high-risk teamwork — in a landscape as physically perilous as high school is emotionally so — turned out to be the perfect cure. The conceit of Jumanji helping everyone evolve a level, so to speak, comes off a little clumsier on the second round, however; while the additions of Eddie, Milo, and some decades-old baggage between them introduce a slightly contrived new emotional element, The Next Level still functions best as a purely escapist video game rather than a particularly insightful or instructive one.
As escapism goes, though, you could do much worse. Kasdan quickly leaves the jungle behind for a whole series of new settings, maximized with some lively set pieces, clever gaming plot devices, and decent laughs throughout. The expanded scope of the thing, however — in both scenery and number of players — buries the characters’ personal journeys even deeper, though the talented cast breathe enough life into their roles to prevent them from being more avatar than human.
But maybe, like adolescent heroes, movie franchises go through growing pains, too; if Sony comes up with a third boss to best, there’s plenty of room in Jumanji to let more feeling in alongside the action. Because even if The Next Level doesn’t set a new high score, it still proves this franchise isn’t out of lives just yet. B