In recent memory, there’s only one film franchise that seems to have unlocked the key to longevity after an extended break and that’s the Fast & Furious series. They found a way to revitalize the car drama by bringing back the original cast and mixing in the characters introduced in the sequels. Add a dash of ever-increasing insane stunts and the films just keep going and going, getting crazier with each new addition. They found a way to channel the various forms of sequelitis into something audiences are lapping up again and again. When dealing with ridiculous situations, going bigger is often the key to making something feel fresh and unique. That works in the Fast & Furious series because they abandoned logic slowly over time. But for a series like Jumanji, based on the 1981 Chris Van Allsburg children’s picture book, logic was tossed out the window a long time ago. Now on its fourth story, Jumanji: The Next Level succumbs to the best and worst parts of any sequel by making almost the same film as before, just with a different scenario.
After surviving their adventure in the video game-inspired Jumanji, the Brantford Four — Spencer (Alex Wolff), Anthony (Ser’Darius Blain), Martha (Morgan Turner), and Bethany (Madison Iseman) — remain incredibly close, even though their lives took them in different directions. Anthony’s playing college football, Martha’s slowly becoming a popular in college, Bethany is traveling the world helping others, and Spencer’s in school at NYU. With the holidays coming up, the four agree to meet up at local coffee shop Nora’s, except Spencer never arrives. Worried, the three go to his house where they find his grandfather Eddie (Danny DeVito) having an argument with old friend Milo (Danny Glover), but there’s no Spencer. No clues, no notes, no sense of where he could be until a familiar drumming sounds and Anthony, Martha, and Bethany realize that Spencer’s managed to get himself back into Jumanji. Thinking they know the way in and out, the three attempt to jump into the magical world of Jumanji only to realize that their previous avatars are taken up by unexpected players set to take on a new mission with a deadlier enemy.
Like any sequel, video game or otherwise, there’s a certain amount of familiarity required in order to bring back the same characters. What returning writers Jeff Pinkner and Scott Rosenberg develop alongside Jake Kasdan, also returning as director, mostly feels like a natural evolution from the previous outing. The four teens experienced an adventure that changed their lives for the better, but that experience lingers over them always. This is most notable in Spencer, who has begun to see his time as Dr. Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson) as the best version of himself. Who among us has not desired to go back to a specific moment in our pasts where things seem more golden, more hopeful, more ideal? This universal notion serves as not just the inciting incident for the Brantford kids to return, but also as the main conflict (and source of attempted hilarity) within The Next Level, which we’ll get into shortly. Wisely, in an attempt to avoid a simple rehash, the writers set up the adventure to take place in a different part of Jumanji, creating not just another part of the jungle to play in but a sense that these adventures are just scratching at the surface of how big Jumanji really is. This creates a great opportunity to expand on the avatars we know — Bravestone, Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan), Dr. Finbar (Kevin Hart), and Professor Oberon (Jack Black) — as well as introduce a few others, increasing the character roster while simultaneously introducing a shift in expectations. In fact, the notion that the that knowing the rules should make things easier is something constantly thrown in the faces of the Bradford kids. You can’t go into a new game, even a familiar one, expecting things to work the same. Oh, no. There are twists everywhere and it adds a bit of flair and fun to the proceedings.
However, with familiarity comes some downsides, and there are quite a few in The Next Level, which make it less successful than its predecessor. The largest, most notable aspect is that the film pairs the avatars into the same groupings, with at least one set having, at its core, the same conflict as before. In the previous film, Anthony and Spencer, as Finbar and Bravestone, worked out their differences as friends after a great deal of squabbling that offered some great physical comedy between Hart and Johnson. This time around, due to … reasons … Eddie and Milo are sucked in as well and are given those avatars. So, once more, except with intonations mirroring Glover and DeVito, the avatars are on the exact same narrative journey. The difference here, other than Anthony having to deal with the shift of being placed in the terribly unathletic Oberon avatar, is that instead of capturing the essence of two teens, Hart and Johnson are jumping from one “old man” joke to another for the bulk of the film. Thankfully, just after the joke is formally deceased, the characters figure out how to avatar switch and that joke ends. The switching allows for a heavier exploration of the notion of a “life lived” which Spencer is struggling with as his youth blinds him to a better understanding. The problem is that the joke set-ups are basically the same as the first film, drowning out most of the softer, more thoughtful aspects.
Where the film deserves its kudos is in both performances from the cast, as well as the depictions of gender and the lack of dysphoria. In the 2017 Jumanji, the central cast of Johnson, Hart, Gillan, and Black did a fantastic job capturing the essence of their younger counterparts, while maintaining the illusion that the younger versions were the ones doing the acting. Very few moments in that film felt like the actors as the characters versus flesh and blood avatars, which absolutely speaks to the cast’s collective talent. That is on full display here, especially as avatar-switching occurs and new “playable” characters are introduced. So whether Martha or Anthony are in the Ruby avatar, Gillan’s entire performance shifts to a reasonable facsimile of Blain. Though the script forces Johnson and Hart into old guy trope territory, there’s no denying that much of the comedy (the stuff that works) comes from the actors emulating DeVito and Glover without sliding into caricature. While I won’t get into specifics of new cast member Awkwafina’s role as Ming, it should be noted that hers is one of the strongest performances in the film and, coming off of performances in Paradise Hills and The Farewell, she is a national treasure and should be protected at all costs. It’s worth bringing her up, though, because her role is an avatar populated by male characters. Just like Welcome to the Jungle never stooped to making gender jokes, the notion of gender fluidity is also never directly addressed in The Next Level. Upon recognition of the person within the avatar, that person is acknowledged and is given reverence based on their respective skills. The fact that the film never stoops to the low-hanging fruit of gender-based humor is laudable and there are ample opportunities to do so. Instead, the jokes come from situations and character interaction, just like in Welcome to the Jungle. For a family film, one coming out in time for the holidays, the fact that it presents fluidity respectfully is bold and I’m here for it.
While the “old guy” jokes get stale quick and there’s a strong similarity between both Welcome to the Jungle and The Next Level that’s hard to ignore, The Next Level is still a good deal of fun. It’s not as fresh or surprising as Jungle, but what it does is entertaining, which is all anyone ever wants from these films. In reality, of all the things to be disappointed by in The Next Level, it’s that Rory McCann’s (Game of Thrones) villain, Jurgen the Brutal, makes not a single chicken reference. And if that’s considered the real low-point of the film, then be ready to enjoy yourself. But take heed. Once the credits roll, don’t jump up just yet. Shortly after the credits start, an epilogue begins hinting at what may come if a fifth entry is greenlit. For if there’s anything we’ve learned about the Jumanji series, it’s that the game never really ends. *queue distant drumming*
In theaters December 13th, 2019.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.