Plain, Simple Tom reviews . . . “Jumanji: The Next Level” (2019)

After having previously escaped the dangerous videogame world of Jumanji and destroying the game cartridge, Spencer (Alex Wolff), Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain), Martha (Morgan Turner) and Bethany (Madison Iseman) have moved on with their lives, enjoying their winter break and making plans to soon reunite, but Spencer’s life isn’t going anywhere special as he finds himself stuck in a dull job, reeling over his breakup with Martha, and having to share his room with his visiting grandfather Eddie (Danny DeVito). So when he decides to repair the videogame and to live as the mighty Dr. Smoulder Bravestone again, he finds himself stuck in the game and both Fridge and Martha, along with Eddie and his former partner Milo (Danny Glover), who have unexpectedly been sucked into the game as well, reenter the game in order to find him, soon finding themselves in different avatars and saddled with a perilous quest to save Jumanji once again.

Back in 2017, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle proved to be a very pleasant surprise because, while I was incredibly sceptical of the idea of a new Jumanji film, one that seemed to be a Dwayne Johnson/Kevin Hart/Jack Black comedy, which didn’t exactly set my expectations high, it surpassed all expectations and wound up being a very fresh, imaginative and wonderfully entertaining experience and an ideal way to finish the cinematic year. So I was obviously going to watch the sequel and as the trailers always made me smile, I was all to eager to jump back in to the entertaining world of Jumanji and having made it one of the final films that I saw in 2019, I’d say that, like its predecessor, The Next Level is an entertaining enough popcorn flick with fun characters and a willing cast, but it pales in comparison to Welcome to the Jungle and it has flaws that hold it back from true greatness.

Disappointingly, The Next Level, rather than taking the franchise in a fun or unexpected new direction, is more or less a copy of the previous film and though it adds a few new touches (some of which don’t even work, though), the film follows the formula set by the previous one and gives us a lot of what we saw before. Beginning with a “real world” chapter, the guys are inevitably whisked into the game, experience some confusion as to what’s going on, one gets killed by a large animal, we get a recap on their strengths and weaknesses and their life counters, Rhys Darby comes along to set up the main mission – one that involves getting their hands on an important jewel, defeating the big bad and then saving Jumanji – and then action/adventure hijinks ensue and a couple of the characters learn things about each other and reconcile some personal problems. The fact that the film offers little new material is a big problem and I believe that they should have made the film about the game being broken – with the characters trying to escape and to complete the mission but finding that the game is frought with glitches and unpredictable events that make it much harder to get out. The story is also flawed because it contains too many plot contrivances and certain moments that are hard to accept; true, none of this is meant to be taken seriously but in this particular film, we are presented with all too convenient “character switching stations”, pointless new strengths and weaknesses, and playable characters who clearly weren’t in the available roster in an effort to accommodate the new people entering the game – including a HORSE of all things – and moments like this demonstrate some unfortunately lazy storytelling and it’s a shame that the bumpy writing leads to more questions than answers.

The script also presents new problems because the film is too reliant on jokes and one-liners that revolve around old age and these jokes do indeed get old and repetitive pretty fast and each new one will only encourage exasperated sighs from the audience. The writing is also a touch too overly emotional and there are too many scenes involving characters having heart-to-heart conversations, the problem being that these emotional moments aren’t entirely genuine and only serve to slow the film down. Because that’s another issue the film has: it dedicates far too much time to “talkier” scenes and this means that the pacing suffers and it becomes clear that there aren’t enough action/adventure scenes that will entertain the audience and get them munching their popcorn. The strength of this new generation of Jumanji films is its fun factor and its big, entertaining setpieces and while character development and emotional stakes are encouraged, I hope that any future films will dedicate more time to the fun and the thrills, taking the story in a new direction and presenting the franchise with new and inventive ideas.

But despite the troublesome story and slow pace, The Next Level gets by thanks to its returning cast, as well as a few new faces, and the central quartet of Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Karen Gillan and Jack Black continue to entertain and bring joy and humour to the series; Johnson has fun channeling Danny DeVito and getting stuck into the action scenes, again fitting the part perfectly even though he was better in the previous film, Hart gives a noticeably more restrained performance as he admirably imitates Danny Glover, Gillan continues to greatly impress as she takes far more of a leadership role and owns the action sequences as “Killer of Men” Ruby Roundhouse (though she doesn’t get to use her nunchucks enough), and Black continues to have fun with various combinations of character, though his impersonation of a teenage girl will surely always be the best. The “young” cast also return, this film giving them far more material to work with, and they admirably build on their characters from the previous film and bring much more depth and an increasing amount of talent and ability.

There are also a few new faces such as Danny DeVito, Danny Glover and Rory McCann and they perform well with what they’re given (DeVito will always be a welcome onscreen presence) but it’s perhaps Awkwafina who has the most to do in her role of Ming, initially channeling the speech and mannerisms of a teenager and then going on to provide the film’s biggest laughs as she impersonates Danny DeVito quite marvelously – she was clearly BORN to play a crotchety old man and, despite the film’s problems, this decision was, frankly, a genius move.

And although the film doesn’t quite include enough action setpieces, the ones we do have are often very entertaining (an early desert chase and the bridge sequence being the clear highlights) and the CGI and special effects work that accompany them are sleek, accomplished and visually pleasing.

Although the cast and characters continue to be a lot of fun, and the action/adventure setpieces manage to entertain, The Next Level stumbles due to its awkward pacing, messy writing, and the fact that it imitates its predecessor a little too closely.

★ ★ ★