2017's Jumanji: Welcome To The Jungle may have given the franchise a very literal upgrade by modernizing the idea of a cursed board game into a magical video game, but the concept never strayed too far from its roots. Players are pulled into the game world (rather than the classic version's game world spilling out into reality) where they inhabit avatar bodies and are sent on a quest to finish the game so that they can escape back to their normal lives. Written out, it all seems like rather low hanging fruit, especially given the Jumanji franchise's status as a nostalgia sweet spot for fans of the 1995 original, but Welcome To The Jungle managed to deliver a surprisingly refreshing and self-aware action-comedy. So, it would go to follow that its direct sequel, Jumanji: The Next Level, could stick close to the same formula and deliver a similar romp-y experience.
Unfortunately, it doesn't quite work out that way. The Next Level brings back absolutely everything Welcome To The Jungle put out on the table, but manages to at once seem too predictable and too off-the-wall to ever hit the charming rhythm the first film captured so readily. It's not for lack of trying--everyone in the original cast, including Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Jack Black, and Karen Gillan are back and the concept is just as fun as it was back in 2017--but it loses its way while trying to introduce new ideas into the mix.
Thanks to some perfectly avoidable (and frankly logically questionable) circumstances, the four players from Welcome To The Jungle, Spencer (Alex Wolf), Fridge (Ser'Darius Blain), Bethany (Madison Iseman), and Martha (Morgan Turner) wind up back in the game a year after their first escape--but there's a twist this time around. Rather than ending up in the same avatars they had before, the semi-broken game randomly selected player characters for each person on top of adding two new players to the mix. Spencer's grandpa, Eddie (Danny DeVito) and Eddie's friend Milo (Danny Glover) are dropped in as well, taking up avatars from the first go-around.
The concept of players switching avatars probably could have been funny--Kevin Hart, to his credit, does a fantastic Danny Glover impression--but the switcheroo seems to siphon the energy and humor right out of the movie. The Next Level seems fixated on trying to recreate, in excruciating detail, the same experience you'd have while trying to teach your 70-year-old grandparents how to play a triple-A video game, thinking that an endless barrage of "what's my character's name again?" and "how do video games work?" type jokes are funny rather than just boring at best and frustrating at worst. Meanwhile, Jack Black is wasted as his character, Professor Shelly Osborn's new personality seems to vacuum up Black's energy at every turn.
The standout of the new additions is Awkwafina who joins the cast as Ming Fleetfoot, a new avatar character who's introduction slowly starts to reinvigorate things. Thankfully, by the third act, The Next Level seems to understand what its strengths are again and actually manages to land some solid jokes--but it almost feels like too little, too late at that point. There are some solid jokes packed into the last thirty minutes or so, but they're unfortunately broken up by bizarre story choices that crumble under any sort of scrutiny. For instance, Collin Hanks' and Nick Jonas' Alex--the Robin Williams analog from Welcome To The Jungle who was trapped in the game for 20 years and then re-emerged into the real world as an adult with a family--makes a comeback. But so does the strange flirtation he shared with then high school student, now college kid Bethany. It was played as something of a gag in the first film (Alex wasn't aware of how much time had passed, and was inhabiting Nick Jonas' Seaplane McDonough at the time) but the conceit doesn't work at all now that everyone is up to speed. Instead of addressing this issue, The Next Level tries to hedge its bets and hopes that the interactions between Bethany and Alex seem charming and funny rather than vaguely uncomfortable.
These strange character moments are bookended by seemingly random action set pieces that never look bad, really, but never actually look good either. With the exception of one specific call back to a fight from Welcome To The Jungle, each of the major The Next Level sequences seem almost arbitrary or designed specifically with the intent of teeing up yet another joke about how old people don't know how video games work.
All told, Jumanji: The Next Level just never manages to find enough a solid enough foundation to make things work the way they ought to. Sure, you're going to probably get a handful of decent laughs and, if you're a person who plays video games, you'll catch more than a few clever nods to various genre conventions and story tropes, but there just isn't enough meat on those bones to make its 2 hour run time worthwhile.
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