Much like Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, the sequel Jumanji: The Next Level is a summer blockbuster released in the time of year reserved for Star Wars and “serious” films. It would be easy to write off the sequel as maybe too convenient or even a little padded as it gives us mostly more of the same. But saying The Next Level plays it safe is not the same thing as saying it is boring or not funny.
It isn’t boring and it is funny. In a lot of ways it was nice coming back to Jumanji and seeing all the characters we liked; with a couple of new ones thrown in for sequel sakes. Jake Kasdan emerged as an indie darling with his clever and offbeat Zero Effect. He is proving to be not just a solid franchise director but one who infuses his offbeat sensibilities into the big-budget comedy blockbuster.
The plot of the Jumanji movies is largely irrelevant, it’s the characters that keep us coming back. Spencer (Alex Wolff), “Fridge” (Ser’Darius Blain), Martha (Morgan Turner), and Bethany (Madison Iseman) are back together again under the guise of a winter break reunion. High school is over and the four friends each have gone off on their own adventure.
Spencer is the one who seems to be having the hardest time adjusting to the world outside of high school. Returning home for the holidays he finds his grandpa Eddie (Danny DeVito) is staying with his family due to hip surgery. In other words, Kasdan and his co-writers Jeff Pinkner and Scott Rosenberg have cobbled together the flimsiest excuse for returning to Jumanji.
Spencer’s melancholy combined with his failed relationship with Martha drives him to repair the game. But tinkering with magic on the best of days is a dicey proposition and so he is sucked backed into Jumanji. His friends must go after him but because the console is broken the rescue plan does not go as smoothly as planned.
Kasdan, Pinkner, and Rosenberg wisely decide to switch things up by having the characters land in different avatars, well mostly. Martha is the only one who lands in her original avatar, Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillian). Fridge is now Professor Sheldon Oberon (Jack Black) much to his dismay. But it is Grandpa Eddie who is now Professor Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson) along with his old friend Milo (Danny Glover) as Franklin (Kevin Hart).
If you’ve seen the ads then you already know this. We know Johnson is talented but we also know mimicry is a different game entirely. So we walk in hoping his impression of Danny DeVito is so bad it’s entertaining and not so awful we have to look away. Thankfully, Johnson seems to love stretching his vowels and pitching his voice-even if he is incapable of making himself seem small.
Hart’s Danny Glover is by turns more fascinating because he seems to have mastered Glover’s speech patterns and stances. His Milo as Franklin is a slow-talking confused man unable to grasp what is actually happening. And that is the fire that burns through The Next Level.
The humor is much more prevalent due in large part that the characters know each other and we know the universe, so Kasdan can play a little. The fact that Kasdan and his writers play at all is somewhat refreshing. Much of the fun comes from watching Eddie/Bravestone bicker with Milo Franklin.
Heck, when we first meet Milo and Eddie the two seem to be acting out a deleted scene from Neil Simon’s The Sunshine Boys. Cantankerous, stubborn, and loud the two are so busy arguing or trying to figure out what’s happening they miss obvious explanations and clue.
Shoved into a plane while Nigel (Rhys Darby) the NPC from the previous film, tells them their new quest, the two are horrified as the film cuts to a cut scene to show the death of Bravestone’s father; Johnson with a Luigi style mustache.
“Who is Jumanji?” Eddie asks confused. Pointing at Ruby/Martha Milo replies with “If I’m listening correctly it’s her sister.” Eddie/Bravestone merely grunts and nods.
The script can’t get enough of these characters talking which in today’s world of stoic meaningful stares and glares mixed with desaturated colors and humorless villains, The Next Level is a breath of fresh air. Characters who can hold conversations are a rare breed in modern Hollywood, and to have them be actually funny is rarer still.
Even rarer is to have not one but two, astonishing performances. Jack Black’s, Bethany as Shelly, all but stole the show last time. Here he manages to turn what could have been a truly horrendous idea into a well thought out risk. Having an older white man play as if he is actually a young black teenager could have gone wrong in a myriad of ways. But Black and Kasdan thread the needle and the result is astonishing.
Equally so is Awkwafina’s turn as Spencer and later as Grandpa Eddie. Already rightfully heralded for her dramatic chops in this year’s earlier The Farewell, Awkwafina turns in no less of a jaw-dropping performance. Much like Black, she channels the idea of the character through speech patterns and how she holds herself.
When we first meet Spencer as Awkwafina we understand immediately what’s happened. Not because Awkwafina is a star and thus she must be one of the missing characters. No, it’s in how she walks and talks like Alex Wolff.
The Next Level perhaps doesn’t feel as new as Welcome to the Jungle and that’s to be expected. The villain Jurgen the Brutal (Rory McCann) is, even more, one-note than the last film’s villain played by Bobby Cannavale. McCann swaggers about while grunting and grimacing to delightful perfection but even with the knowledge that he killed Bravestone’s parents he seems unnecessary.
Parts of The Next Level feel like extra baggage put in purely because it is a movie about a video game. Well, Welcome to the Jungle was, but this time around it feels less like a clever roundabout way to make a great video game movie and more like a movie which desperately wants to have fun with these characters but feels it necessary to put in a boss to be defeated and a quest.
We can feel Kasdan and his writers struggling with this as well. While in the game Martha/Ruby and Fridge/Sheldon discover a strange blue pool that allows people to switch character bodies. A blatant plot device to get the right characters in the right bodies for the third act showdown. I’m not knocking it but it requires the characters finding a pool of the strange water, falling in, switching bodies, pause for admittedly fun camera mugging before switching back.
Yet, despite the sluggish pace and meandering plot, I was never really conscious of it. After all, the third act gives a great fight scene involving everyone who’s not Spencer/Bravestone and it is glorious. Gyula Paos, who shot Welcome to the Jungle, returns for this installment and I can tell how much he enjoys filming these actors. The camera can’t help but relish observing Johnson putting on an exaggerated Queen’s accent or stand back in astonishment at Awkwafina’s dead-on impersonation of DeVito.
But the action, thanks to Kasdan and Pados, does the rest of the heavy lifting. One scene involving a pantheon of swinging rope bridges and a horde of savage mandrills had me tense despite knowing in no way would any studio kill off any of these actors. It also helps that, unlike most franchise films Pados and Kasdan seem to not be afraid of bright shiny colors.
The Next Level pops off the screen with vitality and intelligent good humor sadly lacking in the average multiplex. Preposterous and not entirely self-serious, the Jumanji franchise is shaping up to be a much-needed tonic in an era of serious popcorn movies. Not to mention if it means I get another movie with Danny DeVito then I am more than game for another movie.