I have been working as a film journalist since 2010, dividing the first four years between radio broadcasting and entertainment writing in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. In 2014, I entered Fresh Fiction (FreshFiction.tv) as the features editor. The following year, I stepped into the film critic position at the Denton Record-Chronicle, a daily North Texas print publication. My time is dedicated to writing theatrical film reviews, at-home entertainment columns, and conducting interviews with on-screen talent and filmmakers, as well as hosting a podcast devoted to genre filmmaking (called My Bloody Podcast). I've been married for seven happy years, and I have one son who is all about dinosaurs just like his dad.
Travis Leamons // Film Critic
JUMANJI: THE NEXT LEVEL
Rated PG-13, 123 minutes.
Director: Jake Kasdan
Cast: Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Karen Gillan, Jack Black, Alex Wolff, Morgan Turner, Ser’Darius Blain, Madison Iseman, Marin Hinkle, Danny Glover, Danny DeVito, Awkwafina, Nick Jonas and Colin Hanks
JUMANJI: WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE got it right when it took the general conceit of the original movie and had its characters enter a video-game environment. Instead of exotic wildlife running amuck in suburbia, our players – four high schoolers serving detention with personalities as identifiable as a certain breakfast club – were transported to a magical world where the nerd becomes the alpha-male, the tall jock is a mousey wimp, the shy intellectual girl is a bad-ass chick, and the princess is Jack Black.
Three years later, the gang is out of high school and attending college. Spence (Alex Wolff) is off at NYU. Lonely and stressed, his long-distance relationship with Martha (Morgan Turner) is over. Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain) is upping his play on the football field, while Bethany (Madison Iseman) is less egocentric and more charitable.
Everyone communicates over social media, though Spence’s updates and replies are sporadic. He misses Jumanji. He misses being strong and confident, like his avatar Dr. Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson). Coming home for the holidays allows Spence to escape being a wimp and be heroic again, for he has salvaged and repaired the gaming console.
What could go wrong?
JUMANJI: THE NEXT LEVEL gives us enough set up to identify Spence’s melancholy and introduce us to his crotchety, hip-mending grandfather Eddie (Danny Devito) and Eddie’s estranged friend Milo (Danny Glover). When Martha, Fridge, and Bethany go looking for Spence and discover he’s re-entered Jumanji, this time they knowingly enter the game to find him. Well, not all of them. The console has been Frankensteined together and is unstable. So erratic that the game picks Fridge and Martha to enter along with Eddie and Milo. Bethany is left behind.
The sequel ups the comedy ante by shuffling the characters and avatars around. Spence isn’t the alpha-male like he wanted to be – he’s a new avatar entirely. Instead, grandpa Eddie is Dr. Bravestone. That is to say, Dwayne Johnson walks and talks like Danny Devito. If that doesn’t make you crack a smile, just step away from the controller and go play something else.
Put into gaming terms, THE NEXT LEVEL is a DLC package to WELCOME TO JUNGLE. Our characters have added abilities and weaknesses and new outfits. They’re still in Jumanji; only it’s a bigger, more open world. The quest is new, the villain different, but making it out of the game is still the objective.
Just like the last installment, the world of Jumanji allows the characters to grow and experience change through their avatars and apply it in the real world. With THE NEXT LEVEL, strained friendships and reconnecting is the central theme and provides a rewarding message to those who find themselves growing apart from friends and family.
And this is achieved in the best possible way: body-swapping and unfamiliarity. By having those aware of Jumanji and those who wouldn’t know a video game if they saw one, we are offered scenarios and situations where stars Johnson, Black, Kevin Hart, and Karen Gillan play off one another in different ways.
Johnson as DeVito sells the premise of this cash-grab sequel, but Hart steals the show. He’s basically Danny Glover for two hours, inflecting the seasoned actor’s speech and cadence throughout.
Having Eddie and Milo get used to being Bravestone and Franklin “Mouse” Finbar provides some of the best comedy I’ve seen this year. Gillian’s Ruby Roundhouse heroine remains the same, minus one side quest that proves opportunistic during the climax, and Fridge gets to be Jack Black. Unfortunately, Fridge as Black is not nearly as amusing as having popular girl Bethany as the avatar.
JUMANJI: WELCOME TO JUNGLE and THE NEXT LEVEL have a certain charm that makes them feel like animated movies come to life or the best video game movies that’s not based on a video game. Doling out avatars like lining up the reels in a slot machine allows the main cast to experiment. Dwayne Johnson is Mr. Charisma, so seeing him as a grumpy older man is pure genius. Comedy is hard, and Johnson pulls it off as easily as raising a single eyebrow.
JUMANJI: THE NEXT LEVEL is now playing nationwide.