Producers: Dwayne Johnson, Jake Kasdan, Dany Garcia. Hiram Garcia, Matt Tolmach and William Teitler Director: Jake Kasdan Screenplay: Jeff Pinkner, Scott Rosenberg and Jake Kasdan Cast: Dwayne Johnson, Jack Black, Kevin Hart, Karen Gillan, Nick Jonas, Awkwafina, Alex Wolff, Danny DeVito, Danny Glover, Rory McCann, John Ross Bowie, Rhys Darby, Dania Ramirez, Morgan Turner, Ser’Darius Blain and Madison Iseman Distributor: Sony Pictures Entertainment/Columbia Pictures
The subtitle of this sequel to the 2017 reboot of “Jumanji” suggests that, in video-game jargon, it will offer an extra dash of excitement and pizzazz beyond what its predecessor provided. But the movie doesn’t. One might argue that the subtitle could refer instead to the level of stupidity in the script, or the level of boredom the movie induces, despite its extravagant action sequences and myriad CGI effects.
Of course, the strange game was destroyed at the end of the last picture, so the first thing the screenwriters have to do is explain how it becomes operative again. That turns out to require a long, lumpy exposition showing nerdy Spencer (Alex Wolff), now a harried college student in NYC, morose over his separation from girlfriend Martha (Morgan Turner), coming home for the holidays but not looking forward to his reunion with her, Bethany (Madison Iseman) and Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain). He’s also nonplussed at having to share his room with his crotchety grandpa Eddie (Danny DeVito), who’s recuperating from a hip replacement. This pre-game prologue is further complicated by the arrival of Milo (Danny Glover), Eddie’s ex-partner at a downtown diner from whom the old man has been estranged for years.
Depressed with his life and anxious for some excitement, Spencer reassembles the Jumanji game (he’s kept the pieces in his basement, for some reason) and reenters it, expecting that his avatar will once again be the virile hero Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson). But it doesn’t turn out that way.
Arriving in search of Spencer, Martha, Bethany and Fridge, along with Eddie and Milo, go to the basement, only to be sucked into the game too. But the avatars are jumbled: though Martha again becomes strapping Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan), Eddie becomes Bravestone and Milo zoologist Franklin Finbar (Kevin Hart). Fridge, meanwhile, again suffers indignity, taking the persona of dumpy cartographer Shelly Oberon (Jack Black). Eventually they’ll find Spencer, who is now a new avatar, a sneaky thief named Ming (Awkwafina). As for Bethany, for some reason she’s not initially taken into the game, but enters later in the form of an avatar that won’t be revealed here, after conscripting Alex (Colin Hanks) to come along with her in the persona of heroic pilot Jeff McDonough (Nick Jonas).
That’s not all. Avatar-switching periodically occurs, in one case to particularly good effect—when Eddie leaves Bravestone and becomes Ming. That’s because Johnson’s attempt to mimic DeVito is so ghastly that one can only hope its awfulness was intentional. Predictably, Awkwafina does a much better job with both the mannerism and the voice.
The setting of the game is different this time around, too—a realm of desert and mountains rather than a jungle. And the villain has changed: he’s a cruel warlord called Jurgen the Brutal (Rory McCann), who’s engaged in the conquest of the place. Our heroes’ task, as explained by the gamekeeper (Rhys Darby), is to retrieve a mystic stone that Jurgen has purloined and win the game—and escape back to the real world alive—by restoring it to the sunlight.
The group’s adventures involve a lot of special effects, beginning with their pursuit by a herd of angry ostriches and continuing to a frantic escape across a passel of moving suspension-bridge sectors while being chased by a ravenous pack of bloodthirsty mandrills. At the close there’s also a confrontation between Bravestone and Jurgen aboard an early form of dirigible, and an episode involving a Pegasus-like horse, before things turn into mushy sentiment, complete with a pledge from the young friends never to return to Jumanji again–a promise that will almost certainly be broken should “The Next Level” prove anywhere near as successful as its predecessor.
If—as seems likely—another sequel follows, one would hope that more attention will be given to the script and the effects than appears to have been done here. The gags and jokes throughout are pretty limp (we even pause at one point for a protracted, unfunny bit about testicles, or lack thereof). Much the best material has to do with the oldsters, not just Awkwafina’s take on DeVito but even more Hart’s droll version of Glover’s slow, carefully articulated delivery. Otherwise the cast appears to be pretty much just going through the expected motions, and the same can be said of Kasdan, who doesn’t bring much energy to the scenes between the big action sequences.
As for the CGI, it’s possible that despite the small army of technicians listed in the credits, the visuals are intended to look cheesy as a way of making fun of old video games. (On the other hand, it might be the result of the speed of production, which amounted to less than a year from beginning of filming to release.)
Whatever the case, there’s a tired, redundant feel to “The Next Level,” but of course playing the same game repeatedly often has that effect.