Synopsis: A team of friends return to Jumanji to rescue one of their own but discover that nothing is as they expect. The players need to brave parts unknown, from arid deserts to snowy mountains, in order to escape the world’s most dangerous game.
Stars: Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Karen Gillan, Jack Black, Nick Jonas, Danny DeVito, Danny Glover
Director: Jake Kasdan
Running Length: 123 minutes
TMMM Score: (5/10)
Review: Seeing movies at advanced screenings is a huge benefit to doing what I do but it often presents a false impression of how a real audience will react to a movie. Many times, the crowds that gather for these early showings have waited in line for hours and are experienced at snagging seats for every movie no matter the content or genre. As long as it’s free, it’s worth seeing and that isn’t always the case for families that have to consider the cost to entertainment benefits of packing the kids into the car and taking them to the movies where prices are high and concessions are tempting. What I could easily write off as trivial piddle because I’m seeing it for free and have another movie to get to tomorrow could be the one film outing of the holiday season for a household. So trust me when I say I take this seriously.
Though I had my finicky issues with 2017’s Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, I still was able to recognize the enormous appeal of its stars and setting, a feeling that obviously was shared by the movie-going public who came out to support it en masse. Opening strong but then showing surprising longevity over the ensuing weeks, the semi-sequel to the 1996 Robin Williams film was a bona fide hit that didn’t rely solely on the cast or an existing franchise to sell it. It was an entertaining adventure that was a safe choice for the holidays and managed to outlast a Star Wars sequel (The Last Jedi) and a big movie musical (The Greatest Showman). Two years later, a third movie has arrived a week before the release of another Star Wars film (The Rise of Skywalker) and a highly anticipated adaptation of a Broadway show (CATS)…is lighting going to strike again for Jumanji: The Next Level and its key players?
It’s been a year since four high schoolers serving detention entered a video game version of Jumanji that saw them take on different role playing avatars to humorous results. Saving the day and exiting the playing ground as friends, they’ve gone their separate ways but have decided to reunite during the holidays. Staying with his mom for the week and sharing a bedroom with his grandfather Eddie (Danny DeVito, Dumbo) recuperating from hip surgery, Spencer (Alex Wolff, Semper Fi) can’t seem to find the same confidence he felt when he was in Jumanji as Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson, Rampage) and takes a late-night opportunity to go back into the game.
Looking for Spencer when he doesn’t show up for their scheduled reunion, the three other friends (Morgan Turner, Ser’Darius Blain, and Madison Iseman) figure out where he has likely gone but before they can make a plan to save him they are sucked back into the game, along with Eddie and Eddie’s former business partner Milo (Danny Glover, The Dead Don’t Die). All is not well when they return though because while the familiar avatars have stayed the same, the game has changed and, as the title indicates, there is another level to play if they want to make it out alive. Teaming up with fresh characters, re-discovering old alliances, traveling to new worlds, and battling stronger enemies, the group will have to work together in order to retrieve a precious jewel that holds the key to sustaining the life of Jumanji.
The previous film was working with a script from at least four screenwriters and felt bogged down in a mass of ideas and input. You could tell it had gone through the franchise factory to ensure it was perfected in order to leave room for future installments and, as I predicted at the end of my review of the original this new film allows our adventurers to explore different worlds outside of the jungle setting. This keeps the movie from becoming too familiar, even if the entire endeavor is a basic rehash of the original, albeit with bigger effects and a few more characters within the game thrown in. Is it a better movie? I don’t know. It feels about on par with what’s come before and it doesn’t stray too much from what everyone loved from the preceding film. It brings back nearly everyone, including Nick Jonas (Midway) and that helps it achieve some consistency.
Director Jake Kasdan (Sex Tape) gathers the gang together again and largely lets them loose to do their shtick with little restraint. This works for the most part in the physical scenes but for the passages that rely on comedic timing, some red flags popped up for me. I’m not so sure how much I loved hearing Johnson (being “played” by DeVito) yammering through a stereotypical Brooklyn vernacular and I definitely didn’t care for Jack Black (The House with a Clock in Its Walls) affecting a problematic ethnic dialect when he was supposedly being played by a black teenager. Black was already skating on some tepid ice with his wispy valley girl tra-la-la-ing and furthering some dated speech patterns made me squirm a bit.
If Johnson was the winning star of the first film, the bulk of the heavy lifting here is shifted to Kevin Hart (The Upside) and Karen Gillan (Oculus) who get some nice moments in as the zoologist and butt-kicker in the group. The wealth is evenly distributed among the four but I felt Hart and Gillan were afforded some of the movies best sequences. Strangely, the previews and marketing materials have failed to mention the presence of a new character played by a star on the rise and if the studio is being cagey about it, I’ll keep their identity a secret as well. All I’ll say is this actor is making the awards rounds this season and perhaps they want to downplay their participation in a silly movie for fear their more serious work would be seen in a different light – which makes sense because what they’re doing is painting with some fairly broad strokes. Another secret I’ll keep is the name of an actor making an appearance somewhere in the movie that I recognized from the 1996 film. At first, I wondered why this person would be cast who already had an association with this property, only to find out later they have the same character name in both movies. A coincidence? Time will tell.
Clocking in at 129 minutes, this felt longer than it had to be. I was getting fairly shifty in my seat before this was even half over and I’m not sure if small children would feel the same way. I would have liked to see a bit more adventure included in this adventure story and not just impressive CGI created worlds and effects. There’s a nifty (and scary) high-wire pursuit by a horde of mandrills and a sequence near the end featuring a player eluding poison darts was more in line with what I wanted but there isn’t much room for that when so many other stars are mugging for time. With a foundation already laid for a third installment, even if this doesn’t exactly represent a level up in overall quality at least there’s been some thought put into the design of this new playing field.