When Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle came out, the big question was why. Why had a sequel to a minor Robin Williams film from 1995 come out over 20 years later? Who was asking for it? But Jungle was a surprising success. By turning the magical board game in the first film into a video game and having most of the narrative take place inside the game, it brought a brand new twist to the original. Jumanji itself had evolved with the times.
Jumanji: The Next Level, on the other hand, is a basic rehash of Jungle with no true upgrades. A sequel for sequel’s sake. We have the same four young people heading into the game to take on new challenges that aren’t terribly different from their previous adventures on their way to fighting another colorless, flat villain. There are a couple new players and a new in-game avatar for someone to inhabit, but the trajectory for the narrative is just the same.
The only real difference this time around is that the game is broken and all but one of the players end up in different avatars than the last time. Heroic archeologist Dr. Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson) is no longer played by the neurotic Spencer but by Spencer’s clueless grandfather Eddie (Danny Devito). Likewise, zoologist Mouse Finbar (Kevin Hart) is inhabited by Eddie’s former best friend Milo (Danny Glover). Shy teen Martha once again plays as “killer of men” Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan), but big jock Fridge has to play as the decidedly unathletic Professor Oberon (Jack Black).
Even that conceit, however, means very little to the overall narrative of the film. Before even the half-way point, the characters discover a way to switch avatars; the game is “broken” but has an in-universe way to fix the effects of its broken state. So…what was the point of it being broken in the first place? It’s just one example of the lazy, shallow writing and world-building that prevents this film from being as entertaining, humorous, or exciting as its predecessor.
The film itself feels very hastily thrown together, probably because that’s exactly what happened. It took only 10 months from filming to release, a remarkably short amount of time for a big-budget adventure of this nature. (The previous film took over a year.) The narrative is driven entirely by plot devices and deus ex machina. The episodic nature of the story feels less like a video game this time and more like a series of vignettes slapped together in the editing booth; a table full of brainstorms that somehow became a script by sheer force of will.
Visually, however, the film does well. Returning director/co-writer Jake Kasdan has an eye for color and composition — there’s rarely any wasted visual space — and his action scenes work even if they too often feel engineered more than choreographed. A scene involving the team crossing a canyon on a series of rotating rope bridges while avoiding a mob of mandrills is more impressive for its mathematical precision than it is any actual artistry. The visual effects are all well done and match the fidelity of the previous film, even if there isn’t a significant evolution in how they’re used. The herd of stampeding ostriches here is just as well-rendered as the herd of stampeding rhino from before, but it’s just trading one animal for another and getting similar results.
If only the script had had as much attention paid to it. The new players Eddie and Milo are poorly-drawn, and the old animosity between them means little. We’re barely given time with them before they get sucked into the game, and their Grumpy Old Men-style dialogue gets old quickly, especially because we all know how their storyline is going to develop before it even starts. In general, the character beats are inherently predictable, and some of the motivations are purely excuses. Spencer in particular seems to have jettisoned all his development from the end of the last film, and the only reason seems to be because there had to be a reason for him to go back into the game and start the plot.
Just like the first film, though, it’s the cast that makes the film worth watching and sustains it even through its weakest and laziest points. The prospect of Dwayne Johnson doing an extended Danny DeVito impression seems kind of terrifying on paper but ends up working surprisingly fine. Not great, but fine. Kevin Hart comes off a lot better with his Danny Glover impersonation, though. Jack Black once again does a great job here, especially after the midpoint avatar shift where he’s once again inhabited by teen queen Bethany, who’s possibly the most enthusiastic and dynamic of all the players. Karen Gillan for her part is an effortlessly capable, flip-and-kick hero, and she deserves her own action movie franchise. Why this and her role as Nebula in the Marvel Cinematic Universe hasn’t brought this about yet is a crime.
The scene stealer, however, is Awkwafina as Ming Fleetfoot, a new avatar with thieving skills. Awkwafina herself has proven to be a remarkably talented and versatile actress with a special kind of charisma. When she first appears, she’s inhabited by Spencer and plays his neuroses to a tee. But when the avatars shift and Ming is inhabited by Grandpa Eddie, Awkwafina steals every single scene she’s in. She perfectly inhabits Eddie in every way, from slumped posture to Jersey accent. It’s a performance wholly lacking in self-consciousness and one of the funniest things in an action/comedy with very few scripted laughs.
Ming is also one of the only truly new things about The Next Level, a rushed and sloppy sequel that’s saved from being completely inessential by some good VFX work and a game, charming cast. Everything about it feels less like an upgrade and more like a retread. It’s not so much an exciting new take on the previous film as it is an overpriced DLC pack. All it really makes you want to do is play through the original once again.
FBOTU Score: 5 out of 10 / C