There has always been a Honey I Shrunk the Kids style appeal to the Jumanji franchise. They harken back to the sense of wonder that comes with childhood. A time when one did not just play a board game, or video game, but pretend to be within it.
While the original 1995 Jumanji film, and thematic stepchild Zathura: A Space Adventure, brought elements of the games into the real world, Jake Kasdan’s Jumanji sequel, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, wisely flipped the script and brought viewers into the game. This not only allowed for more cinematic world building, but also provided numerous comedic jabs at the nonsensical aspects of 90s video games.
More importantly it allowed the cast, via the avatars they played, to poke fun at their own personas. There is something inherently amusing about watching Hollywood’s MVP, at least in my humble opinion, Dwayne Johnson play a character uncomfortable with his huge muscles and smouldering good looks. It maybe low hanging fruit, but it is no less delicious.
Unfortunately, there is an undeniable sour taste this time around.
As one would expect, Jumanji: The Next Level follows many of the same beats as its predecessor. However, it is the tweaks to the once winning formula that makes the film so frustratingly perplexing.
The changes make it clear early on that the film does not have enough substance to justify its own existence. In its meandering opening we learn that Spencer (Alex Wolff) is having troubles adapting to university life. While his pals Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain), Bethany (Madison Iseman) and former girlfriend Martha (Morgan Turner) are living their best life, on social media at least, at their respective schools, Spencer is once again searching for an identity. No longer floating on the high that his final year of high school provided, the now sullen NYU student’s life consists of going to class and working part-time stocking shelves at a store.
Not a horrible life per say, but bad enough to warrant the classic “life sucks” scene in which Spencer’s luggage handle breaks while getting caught in the rain.
Things only get more depressing upon returning home for Christmas break when he discovers that he will be sharing his room with his ailing grandpa Eddie (Danny DeVito). Unwilling to reconnect with his friends; and depressed by Eddie’s advice that life will never be better than it is now, Spencer decides to rebuild the destroyed Jumanji console that he has secretly been hiding in the basement.
Of course, it does not take long before he is sucked back into the game and for his friends to go to save him. However, they all get a rude awakening when they discover that they are not only playing different avatars this time around, but also that Eddie and his old restaurant co-owner Milo (Danny Glover) have been pulled into the game as well.
Much like playing a real-life video games with one’s out of touch grandparents, the situation turns from amusing to annoying rather quickly for both the characters and the audience.
By having Eddie and Milo take the avatars of Dr. Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson) and Franklin “Mouse” Finnebar, it instantly throws off the balance that the previous film spent so much time establishing. The film only finds its groove in the last act when the characters revert back to the avatars they are most familiar with. Jumanji: The Next Level may muster some laughs out of Johnson and Hart mimicking the confusion and slow drawl that comes with old age, but it sacrifices growth in the process.
Instead of exploring the friend’s fractured dynamics, the film spends way too much time on Eddie and Milo’s stubborn ways. This results in many set pieces that lack the thrills or sense of danger that Welcome to the Jungle had. Furthermore, whether the avatars are trying to outrun various animals or fight hoards of nameless henchmen, one quickly loose track of how many lives each character has.
Frankly Eddie’s actions alone should have killed Dr. Bravestone eight times over.
While avatars such as Roundhouse (Karen Gillan) and Professor Sheldon Oberon (Jack Black) have more to do this time around, they also contribute to several ridiculous time-wasting moments that only further expose how thin the plot really is.
Unfortunately, unlike real-life, there is no reset button that one can press mid-game to force one’s friends to play a different game entirely. One must sit and watch as the avatars explain their objectives again and again.
Similar to those cellphone apps that advertise themselves as one thing but prove to be a cheap knock off better games, Jumanji: The Next Level is a repetitive and uninspired clone of its predecessor. The only saving grace in this lifeless sequel is the introduction of Awkwafina as the avatar Ming Fleetfoot. Not only does Awkwafina give a far more nuanced and amusing interpretation of DeVito’s character than Johnson does, but she manages to generate honest emotion even when talking to a horse.
For a film all about finding oneself, Jumanji: The Next Level seems to have left its heart back in the jungle.