When Sony announced a “reboot” of “Jumanji,” one of Robin Williams’ most classic films, so soon after the actor’s untimely death, everything about it spelled disaster. Not only was the concept of the original movie completely abandoned in favor of a “modern” video game twist, it felt like yet another cheap Sony cash grab in an attempt to resurrect another dead Sony property — not unlike “Total Recall,” “Robocop” and more recently, “Men in Black International.”
But the stars aligned and “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” became a surprise hit — propelled by the charisma of its four leading characters (the video game characters, not the bland and forgettable real humans) and a surprisingly inventive script. A follow up was guaranteed and, much like its predecessor, “Jumanji: The Next Level” is surprisingly not bad.
“Not bad” might sound like faint praise for a film — especially one packed in the busy holiday movie calendar alongside “Star Wars The Rise of Skywalker” — but that’s basically how to describe both modern “Jumanji” flicks. They don’t hold a candle to the original Williams classic, but they still provide two hours of fun entertainment with some decent action, great comedy and even a few surprising emotional moments.
“The Next Level” is more of an iterative sequel — not unlike many iterative video game sequels from a meta perspective. Spencer, Fridge, Martha and Bethany have drifted apart after their first adventure in the digital world of Jumanji. Lacking confidence in himself, Spencer repairs the broken Jumanji game and goes back in — prompting his friends to go back in after. But because the game was broken, it traps two squabbling senior friends — Spencer’s Grandpa Eddie and Milo Walker, played by Danny DeVito and Danny Glover.
The structure of “The Next Level” is the same as its predecessor — the unwitting humans get trapped in the game world and must complete a quest in order to escape. This time, Dwayne Johnson and Kevin Hart get to flex their acting muscles by portraying Eddie and Walker. Jack Black, the real highlight of “Welcome to the Jungle” when he played the spoiled high school girl Bethany, takes on the persona of Fridge this time. The movie’s unique structure allows for the actors to take on new personas and help breathe fresh life into what would otherwise be a pretty stale second go around. Some of the best movies of the movie result from the squabbling of the two old men in their young bodies.
The ridiculousness of “Welcome to the Jungle” returns in “The Next Level” with action scenes involving carnivorous ostriches, aggressive monkeys and enemies ripped straight out of “Mad Max.” The action has been refined and includes some great stunts from Karen Gillan, who is really coming into her own in Hollywood these last few years.
“Game of Thrones” fans will recognize Sandor Clegane’s Rory McCann as a two-dimensional villain, but one that chews plenty of scenery.
There’s nothing in “The Next Level” that stands out as much as Black playing a spoiled high school girl, but the humor is mostly on point. The message is still relatively the same and focuses on accepting people for who they are, not for who they try to be. It’s nothing that hasn’t been done dozens of times before. John Hughes essentially cornered the high school misfits story 30 years ago. But it’s still solid ground to tread and this movie does a good job of pushing that narrative further.
At the movie’s emotional core is the story of forgiveness. One doesn’t expect to watch a movie like “Jumanji: The Next Level” and to be hit with a gut punch over a couple of senior citizens in their 70s arguing about decisions made decades ago. But when you strip away the flashy action sequences, the over-the-top acting of almost all of the main cast and the video game story, you’re left with a touching look at friendships and how easily they can fall apart.
While “Jumanji: The Next Level” may feel more like an expansion pack than a full sequel, it still offers plenty of laughs and decent action to entertain for two hours. Much like its predecessor, it’s not a great movie, but it’s a fun experience that tries to offer a well-meaning message.