[Review] Next level of ‘JUMANJI’ doesn’t progress enough, stalls in spots

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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.

Jack Black and Karen Gillan

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.

Grade: C+

JUMANJI: THE NEXT LEVEL opens nationwide on Friday.

About author

Preston Barta

Hello, there! My name is Preston Barta, and I am the features editor of Fresh Fiction and senior film critic at the Denton Record-Chronicle. My cinematic love story began where I was born: off planet on the isolated desert world of the Jakku system. It's there I passed the time scavenging for loose parts with my good friend Rey. One day I found an old film projector and a dusty reel of the 1975 film JAWS. It rocked my world so much that I left my kinfolk in the rearview (I so miss their morning cups of green milk) to pursue my dreams of writing about film. It wasn't long until I met two gents who said they would give me a lift. I can't recall their names, but one was an older man who liked to point a lot and the other was a tall, hairy fella. They got me as far as one of Jupiter's moons where we crossed paths with the U.S.S. Enterprise. Some pointy-eared bastard said I was clear to come aboard. He saw that I was clutching my beloved shark movie and invited me to the "moving pictures room" where he was screening the 1993 film JURASSIC PARK to his crew. He said my life would be much more prosperous if I were familiar with more work by the god named Steven Spielberg. From there, my love for cinema blossomed. Once we reached planet Earth, everything changed. I found the small town of Denton, TX, and was welcomed into the Barta family. They showed me the writings of local film critic Boo Allen. He became my hero and caused me to chase a degree in film and journalism. After my studies at graduate of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, I met some film critics who showed me the ropes and got me into my first press screening: 2011's THE GREEN LANTERN. Don't worry; I recovered just fine. MAD MAX: FURY ROAD was only four years away.