Jumanji: The Next Level – Review

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4 STARS

Director: Jake Kasdan
Writers: Jake Kasdan, Jeff Pinkner, Scott Rosenberg
Cast: Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Karen Gillan, Jack Black, Danny DeVito, Danny Glover, Awkwafina, Rory McCann, Nick Jonas, Alex Wolff, Morgan Turner, Ser’Darius Blain, Madison Iseman, Colin Hanks

Producing a sequel to 1995’s beloved movie Jumanji was always going to be a risk; it has many loyal and protective fans, rightly so. However, 2017’s Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle proved to be quite the success, taking us away from being a dreaded remake and instead becoming a reboot in its own right, modernising the board game concept of the original into a more recognisable (for younger generations, anyway) video game and casting actors who are popular for good reason (e.g. for being very entertaining and likable on the whole). To then produce a sequel to the sequel (threequel!?), despite its ending being quite neatly wrapped up, is adding another level (pun intended) of risk to the whole endeavour. The excellent cast are back, but is the story strong enough to warrant going back for more? And, more importantly, why the hell would they even go back into that place where death is a near-certainty!?

Three years post-Welcome to the Jungle sees Spencer (Wolff), Fridge (Blain), Bethany (Iseman) and Martha (Turner) all getting on with their lives separately at college. Spencer and Martha have put a pin in their relationship, thanks to Spencer’s insecurities. They all plan to meet up back in their hometown during a break, but when Spencer doesn’t show up, the other three go to his house to find him. There, they meet Spencer’s grandfather, Eddie (DeVito) and Eddie’s ex-best friend, Milo (Glover). Both are at loggerheads due to Milo’s decision to retire years ago, causing the end of Eddie and Milo’s partnership at their restaurant as well as their friendship. The gang figure out that Spencer recovered the Jumanji game, and the console on which they played it, having thought they’d destroyed it. They realise Spencer has gone back into the game and decide they had better go after him if he has any chance of surviving another playthrough. And, thanks to a strange glitch, they are joined by Milo and Eddie, and so not everyone gets the same avatar they had last time…

The biggest problem with the first movie was its lack of originality and depth of story. The performances and dialogue were great, but the story was lacking. The Next Level, however, has quite literally taken it to the next level, not only delivering once again on the characters and performances, but also adding some much-needed emotional angles to the story. We have Spencer struggling with his self-confidence, especially after experiencing some time as the attractive and extremely built Dr. Bravestone (Johnson), something he has to face head-on in the game this time around, and we also have Eddie and Milo’s issues with each other, something that comes to a head in a very poignant way. Not only does this all give more meaning to the characters, but it gives the story a proper reason to have a beginning, a middle and an end that’s more satisfying than this the predecessor.

As well as the plot, the comedy has gotten stronger too. It’s no secret (thanks to the trailer) that Eddie ends up with Bravestone as his avatar, and Milo gets Mouse Finbar (Hart). This sets up some scenes for some very entertaining comedy (even if the performances aren’t always quite there – we’ll come to that shortly) that is far more laugh-out-loud than Welcome to the Jungle. Writer/director Kasdan wasn’t onboard as a writer for the previous movie, but perhaps it’s his influence that has given the writing a positive shift for this movie (he’s been involved in a lot of film and television comedy through his directing, writing and producing). It’s the comedy that really pulls the audience through this film, as it does start to feel a little drawn out as we get into the third act.

Much like the previous film, the performances are excellent and entertaining, quite tongue-in-cheek and not taken too seriously. DeVito is classically funny and endearingly grumpy as Eddie, and Glover provides a nice contrast to Eddie with his performance as Milo. Johnson’s imitation of DeVito is quite off, though it’s thoroughly forgivable as the comedy it provides is fantastic. Hart’s impersonation of Glover is much better than Johnson’s DeVito, and it makes him much less the weakest member of the gang this time around. In fact, this time there is no weak character. Black gets to play a couple of different characters through the avatar of Shelly Oberon and is wonderfully on form, and the same goes for Gillan, as perfect a female lead as they come and she always looks like she’s having fun with her performances. Awkwafina is a new avatar known as Ming, and she too gets a couple of different characters inhabiting her avatar, the second of which her impression of is so dead on that it puts another actor’s impression to shame. It could also be fair to say that she owns almost every scene she’s in. Jonas is back as Seaplane, with a performance that’s solid but nothing to write home about. The younger cast don’t have quite as many scenes as they did previously, but they each bring their own unique character to life well enough to be recognised in the older Jumanji avatars.

Another Jumanji film was unnecessary, particularly after the ending of the last film. However, thanks to a decent critical response and audience reaction (not to mention raking in a good amount of money), there was always going to be a way for another movie to appear. It was risky, but it has paid off better than last time. There are many improvements and audiences can find themselves having more fun than before, something that also comes across in the performances – if the actors weren’t also having so much fun, it would have been so much worse off. Kasdan has done a better job than previously, something not many directors can boast of when it comes to sequels (threequels). It wouldn’t be the worst thing to not have any more Jumanji movies now, as the job certainly feels done, but as we know with Hollywood, where there’s a success, there’s another potential movie. If they can get the story and comedy right again (very small chance of that), it’s possible, but maybe it’s best to leave well enough alone now. Nobody needs to go back to that jungle again. Ever. Unless something else was to come out of the game..?

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