Review — Jumanji: The Next Level
The title Jumanji: The Next Level seemed appropriate given the new franchise’s video-game spin on an old board-game concept. The question was whether director Jake Kasdan and his cast and crew could really take the Jumanji series to the next level, or whether The Next Level would be a retread of its predecessor.
When the original Jumanji came out in 1995, it garnered middling reviews and moderate success at the box office. Yet it become a home-video classic thanks to Robin Williams’ charm and the deft combination of quasi-horror, fantasy-adventure elements. Rumors regarding a sequel circulated for years until Columbia Pictures managed to put together a script by committee and hired Kasdan to direct in 2016. Initial reactions to the news were tepid in an era when the general public seemed to be growing weary of reboots and long-delayed sequels, but the gamble paid off when Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle dominated the box office to the tune of nearly a billion dollars worldwide. A popular cast and a modernized take on the 90s classic struck a chord with nostalgia fans and newcomers alike.
Just two years later, Jumanji 3 sees the return of Kasdan at the helm as well as the core cast of Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Jack Black, and Karen Gillan, who amused audiences the first time around by playing against type thanks to body-switching shenanigans. The new movie adds Danny DeVito, Danny Glover, and Awkwafina to the mix, expanding the possibilities for identity-based gags. Of course, the movie has to explain why these people, some of whom are real and some of whom are avatars trapped in a dangerous video game, replay Jumanji when it nearly killed them last time. Yet it’s also easy to put aside such questions and just enjoy the excuse to watch a group of iconic actors doing physical comedy. Johnson — the Daniel Day-Lewis of the WWE — does a serviceable job impersonating DeVito’s signature accent and mannerisms, and it is refreshing to see Hart churn out a performance that doesn’t rely on his stand-up persona. He does his best to mimic Glover’s slower speech and deeper pitch.
It takes a bit for the movie to find its pace after reentering the world of Jumanji and doing the usual fish-out-of-water jokes, but when the action commences it doesn’t take many breaks. The world itself is as beautiful and creative as before, and it feels like an authentic video game interpretation of a barbaric steampunk world where nearly everyone and everything wants to kill you. The NPCs (non-player characters) are entertaining, especially Jurgen the Brutal, played by Rory McCann of Game of Thrones fame, though he gets too little screentime.
The protagonists work their way through the levels of Jumanji in engrossing chases that showcase some fantastic CGI befitting the movie’s virtual setting. Amid the action they find plenty of room for jokes, and the actors thrive as they collide with added avatars and extra character switching. The result feels like what a player might experience during a whirlwind weekend binge of Tomb Raider or Uncharted.
The Next Level is not without its share of blockbuster cheese, dei ex machina, and plot armor. The occasional running gag runs dry or falls flat. Yet the overall formula still works. Kasdan and crew may not have taken the Jumanji concept to the next level, but they’ve made a movie every bit as lively as the 2017 sequel, with enough fresh jokes and world-exploring to keep a diverse group of moviegoers entertained. The Jumanji franchise has found a dependable formula for “turn-your-brain-off enjoyment,” even if it’s nothing too new or game-changing, so to speak. However, if there is to be another installment, the studio would probably find it in its best interest to dig deeper and try something new. And based on how The Next Level ends, that might be exactly where we’re headed.