There is nothing particularly “next level” about the second instalment of the all-star, rebooted “Jumanji” franchise. It provides pretty much exactly the same level of entertainment delivered by 2017’s “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle,” a family-friendly action flick that offered up some good-natured laughs.
The last time around nerdy gamer Spencer Gilpin (Alex Wolff), mean girl Bethany Walker (Madison Iseman), jock Anthony “Fridge” Johnson (Ser’Darius Blain) and Martha Kaply (Morgan Turner) were assigned to detention. Stuck in a storage room, they found a dusty old Jumanji gaming console. They turn it and the game sputters to life. “A game for those who seek to find,” it says, “a way to leave their lives behind.” Each clicked on an avatar and were suddenly swept away into the world of the game, plopped down in the Jumanji jungle and in the middle of an escapade. They also looked different. Their teenage selves are gone, replaced by heroic videogame characters. Spencer is now Dr. Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson), a buff hero, fearless with no vulnerabilities. Martha is warrior Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan) while Fridge is zoologist Moose Finbar (Kevin Hart). The biggest change was reserved for Bethany who became cryptographer Professor Sheldon Oberon (Jack Black).
The old gang is back, and when Spencer disappears inside the game they follow along, with some new faces in the form of Spencer’s cranky granddad Eddie (Danny DeVito), the old man’s former business partner Milo (Danny Glover) and a new avatar played by Awkafina.
Once back in the videogame world of Jumanji they must find Spencer and protect a scared gem, keeping it out of the hands of a merciless warlord played by “Game of Thrones’” Rory McCann. Cue a cacophony of close calls, mismatched body swapping, CGI and silly jokes that feel left over from the 2017 movie.
Like most real-life video games “Jumanji: The Next Level” is most fun when they’re actually playing the game and not standing around talking about playing the game.
After a deadly first half-hour that reunites the original cast the film briefly picks up speed when the characters land in Jumanji only to discover they aren’t who they used to be. Moose now looks like Kevin Hart but has Danny Glover’s grandfatherly personality. Eddie wound up as the muscle-bound Dr. Smolder Bravestone and Professor Sheldon Oberon has adopted Bethany’s former avatar, Professor Shelly Oberon. The switcheroos provide some laughs, particularly Hart’s take on Glover’s deliberate (i.e. glacial) dialogue delivery. He nails it, slowing down his usual mile-a-minute style to milk laughs from lines like, “Jurgen the Brutal. Is that Barbara’s boy?”
Johnson has a harder time replicating DeVito’s New Jersey twang, especially in the film’s rare dramatic moments.
The rest of the film is action, herds of ostriches and mandrills attack and there are improbable fight scenes but all are so CGI heavy that they don’t connect. Instead they offer up roughly the same level of thrills as a theme park ride, which, no doubt this will one day be if it isn’t already.
“Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” appealed to audiences with a mix of charismatic actors having a good time in a silly story and inventive action. For the most part “The Next Level” goes the way of so many other sequels, replacing the original charm with a story that is larger and louder but not as engaging. “I can’t believe you came back here on purpose,” says Martha. You may wonder that yourself as the end credits roll.