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.
Preston Barta // Features Editor
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
Coming off the comedic heat of 2017’s Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle — a movie that I thoroughly enjoy and often revisit — director Jake Kasdan returns for a follow-up that aims not to let its increased scale diminish the continued story.
At his sequel’s start, Kasdan adheres to his promise. Jumanji: The Next Level explores surprising and often tender territories. But it’s not too long before Kasdan loses the reins or becomes stuck in gear, especially comedically. Jokes are driven into the ground and situations surface without the spice of the franchise’s original ingredients.
In the Next Level, friends Spencer (Alex Wolff), Martha (Morgan Turner), Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain) and Bethany (Madison Iseman) are now college students who are off living their individual lives and are looking to get together during the holiday break. Fascinatingly, Kasdan invites us to look at how the gaming experience of the previous film impacted the characters’ lives. They underwent their own Breakfast Club moment, and it changed their social trajectory and united them.
Rather than immediately jump into the Jumanji game again — which the characters destroyed at the end of the previous outing — Kasdan takes about 20 minutes to catch us up with the characters before they start playing the game as their avatars (Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Karen Gillan and Jack Black). Most of the friends were inspired to deepen themselves by traveling the world, broadening their education and getting into physical shape. Spencer, on the other hand, doesn’t feel the magic among them as much anymore since they’ve moved on and away.
It’s during these early scenes that the film is at its strongest. It may not have the immediate adventure that we’re chasing, but it’s like the Avengers dealing with the realities and consequences of their global battles. While they may defeat the villain, there’s still a loss. And it’s moving how the Next Level deals with the aftermath of the Welcome to the Jungle events.
The film also brings in new characters. This time, Danny DeVito enters to portray Spencer’s grandfather, Eddie. He just had hip surgery and is staying with Spencer’s family while he recovers. Eddie’s presence serves as one of the film’s most significant lessons, principally when his friend and former business partner Milo (Danny Glover) visits him.
Spencer returns home from New York and plans to meet his friends for breakfast, but he hears the call of the Jumanji game and reassembles it to get a taste of the old feeling. When his friends discover that he’s been pulled into the game again, they decide to jump back in to his aid. But it doesn’t go the way they expected. Bethany is left behind, and Milo and Eddie take her place.
The actor-character combination leads off on a promising note. The concept of DeVito playing the game using Dwayne Johnson’s smoldering and hunky avatar while Glover is allotted Hart’s is a gold mine for humor. Hilariously, Hart captures Glover’s cadence and becomes a walking gag about how older people often take too long to get to the point. Everything is prepared to make you laugh, but then you notice the wheels begin to spin. The same jokes are repackaged in a hundred different ways.
Not only do the laughs lose their power, but the story of the game itself is uninteresting. So many story beats are repeated and aren’t shaken up as well as Kasden thinks they are.
I wasn’t bored by the movie. It’ll make a fine-enough appetizer for casual moviegoers before the new Star Wars opens next week. As a whole, however, it doesn’t capitalize on its potential to wow. Kudos for a few pleasant emotional touches by the conclusion (one involving Awkwafina and a horse), but there are too many wrinkles that need ironing out.
JUMANJI: THE NEXT LEVEL opens nationwide on Friday.