At the Movies with Alan Gekko: Jumanji: The Next Level

MPAA Rating: PG-13/ Genre: Fantasy-Adventure-Comedy/ Stars: Dwayne Johnson, Jack Black, Kevin Hart, Karen Gillan, Nick Jonas, Awkwafina, Alex Wolff, Morgan Turner, Ser’Darius Blain, Madison Iseman, Danny DeVito, Danny Glover, Rhys Darby, Rory McCann, Colin Hanks, Bebe Neuwirth/ Runtime: 123 minutes

I feel that it must be said, but Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle really truly was a big, and quite welcome, surprise hit when it was released against Star Wars: The Last Jedi back in 2017. Indeed this is because the movie managed to take an established franchise that many, including this reviewer, had fond and nostalgic memories of our time watching and re-watching till either our copy, our parents’ patience, or both gave out, and managed to aid the concept into becoming something a bit more modern and “with the times” so to speak. Thus we got to witness a film that truly was a fun and entertaining ride that audiences turned out for in droves to the tune of a little less than 1 billion dollars. Of course with that kind of success, you know the filmmaking community isn’t about to let this particular light bulb burn out, and so now we have Jumanji: The Next Level. However upon watching the finished product I feel I can safely say that, like most video game sequels, Jumanji: The Next Level is part of the proverbial “more of the same” in regards to any successful formula rather than another step forward. Make no mistake the movie is still quite entertaining and fun, and the cast all does good work once again, but this time there is more of an element of familiarity in the air tonight rather than surprise.

The plot is as follows: it’s been a couple years since the events of the previous adventure, and our four (non-avatar) heroes from that movie have since made the leap from high school all the way to college. Yet while most of most of the foursome appear to have adjusted well to their new lives post-Jumanji, we quickly see that Spencer has not. Of course it isn’t long after that we discover that, unbeknownst to his friends, Spencer actually managed to save the damaged Jumanji video game from the previous film, and has repaired it enough in order to go back to the world of Jumanji in an attempt to “find himself again”. Of course, when his friends discover what he has done, they decide to go in after him and bring him home, but in the process accidentally drag Spencer’s crotchety, but caring grandfather Eddie and his visiting “friend,” Milo (Danny Glover), into the game with them. Now it is up to the kids to teach this genuine odd-couple the ins and outs of the game so that they can work together to find Spencer, and leave Jumanji behind them once and for all…..

Now because the Jumanji game is damaged, and because the characters jumping into the game aren’t the same as last time, I do not think it is in any way a spoiler at this point to reveal that initially the avatar-to-human association gets a bit screwy. Thus we see Grandpa Eddie become Dwayne Johnson’s Dr. Bravestone, Milo become Kevin Hart’s Mr. Finbar, Fridge switches over to Jack Black’s Professor Shelly Oberon, and Martha, once again, returns to the body of Karen Gillan’s Ruby Roundhouse. That being said however, the movie decides to change things up on us this time however. This is because this time the film, at various points, presents the distinct yet unique concept of letting the video game avatar actors all get to play multiple characters at the same time, thus challenging them creatively by giving them an opportunity to stretch their acting skills a bit. Indeed it goes without saying, but although Johnson, Hart, Black and Gillan acting against type was part of the charm of the last Jumanji, here everything is elevated by a scale factor of about 10. Thus the fact that not only do these characters get to do so again yet without simply repeating the same characters is honestly one of the things that definitely works best with this film.

Nowhere is this clearer than in regards to the time in the movie when Dwayne Johnson is supposed to be channeling his inner DeVito, and Kevin Hart is supposed to be channeling his inner Danny Glover impression. Indeed this is an arc that is given some of the most time to shine in the movie, understandably of course since they are the new players this time around, and honestly it actually works for the most part. In fact, I would even go so far as to say that the elder characters and their distinct relationship with each other, portrayed through the game avatars, actually manages to make up what you might consider to be the emotional core that this movie’s story ultimately has to offer us. Indeed it really is a nice surprise to have a Hollywood movie about a video game manage, of all things, to deal so respectfully and wonderfully with not only the struggles that people ultimately have to face as they get older, but also the pain, and regrets that go with those struggles as well.

That being said, since the film’s subtitle is The Next Level, I do think it should be said that this movie would in all honesty be nowhere near as fun or entertaining as it is should it have been revealed that the movie’s characters were literally just playing the same bloody game again. Indeed, to that effect and to the credit of the filmmakers, Jumanji has evolved plot-wise, so now not only do the in-game avatars get a new and exciting quest to undertake, but world-building wise as well since the new movie, wisely, moves on from the jungle which has been the focal point of the last 2 movies and instead gives us desert and mountain levels that have the look and feel of something out of Mad Max and Game of Thrones respectively. In addition, the game also upgrades by introducing new characters for the protagonists to adopt since this go-around does have more characters in play with the standout of these being Awkwafina as the rogue cat burglar Ming Fleetwood Mac ehhh Fleetfoot, and despite being a welcome addition to the team I do also feel like she is severely underutilized to the extent that really truly a whole lot more could have, and honestly given that it’s Awkwafina, should have been done with her role.

Now I know that video game sequels rarely revolutionize their game play for fear of alienating the fans of the first game, and Jumanji: The Next Level feels like it has held on to the concept of it being the next chapter in a franchise based off a game a little too close to the vest. I say this because there are moments where it really does seem like key moments from the last movie have simply been re-purposed and reinserted into this new film, and there is seldom if anything that helps to set them apart. Indeed it almost does feel at times like the story that is attempting to be told really truly is beholden to the mechanics behind it, and while that is completely understandable for a video game to do it is most certainly not ok for a film to undertake. With that being said however, I feel that video game sequels, more often than not, work, precisely because what a fan wants, no matter how many times they will say to the contrary, really truly is more of the same albeit with a few new gimmicks thrown in for enhanced entertainment value or replayability after all. They liked it the last time for a reason, after all. It is with this philosophy in mind that Jumanji: The Next Level does do a welcome and wonderful job of reminding audiences just why they enjoyed Welcome to the Jungle, assuming, of course, that one did in the first place. Indeed from the fact that the chemistry between the core quartet of actors is still a wonderful treat, the jokes still landing like they are supposed to, and the action, when it showcases the new threats our players must overcome, still engaging and putting audiences on the edge of their seat there is still a good time to be had with this movie and you will find it enjoyable enough all the same.

All in all I feel it must be said, but if we are to get another Jumanji adventure it will definitely need to find a way to do something truly new with this concept. However, while we wait to hear one way or another, if you want some Jumanji to whet your holiday movie-going appetite, then The Next Level will still be everything you’re looking for. Yet while a video game sequel like Kingdom Hearts 2 or 3 might take the opportunity to polish its mechanics or switch things up a bit for a more enjoyable experience, this video game movie just simply reminds you that you have indeed played this one before; think Wrath of Cortex to the original Crash Bandicoot for example. Indeed Jumanji: The Next Level may still be a fun time, and the cast all does wonderful work, but I definitely feel that it’s time for this franchise to definitely change things up a little bit yet again. On a scale of 1-5 I give Jumanji: The Next Level a 3.5 out of 5.