Nostalgia is a powerful tool. I don’t think anybody was surprised when Sony announced that they were going to reboot (or make a sequel to?) Jumanji, but it was surprising how solid, if predictable it was. In Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, the board game of Jumanji transformed itself into a video console so to be more appealing, and it transports players into its world rather than bringing the world to them. It served as a nice canvas to create some interesting scenarios, yet, even with the star power of Dwayne Johnson, Karen Gillan, Kevin Hart and Jack Black, I think Sony were taken by surprise at how popular it was. A sequel was inevitable.
Following on from their adventures last time, Spencer (Alex Wolff), Martha (Morgan Turner) Bethany (Madison Iseman), and Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain) have remained friends, although Spencer is feeling disillusioned at life outside of the video game. When he decides to return to the game, his friends must follow suit to pull him back out. However, because the game console was partially destroyed at the end of the last film, its malfunction means that Eddie and Milo (Spencer’s granddad and his estranged business partner, played by Danny DeVito and Danny Glover respectively) are sucked into the game too. Cue multiple jokes about being old and not understanding video games.
Although it didn’t always hit the mark, the first film could at least be described as humorous, but it’s a stretch to say the same about Jumanji 2. The humour is far worse than the first film, making a number of weak jokes about old people’s failure to grasp technology, and jokes about genitals that fall flat. Perhaps, though, this is symptomatic of flat and uninspired writing more generally. While Welcome to the Jungle may have been a fresh take on a beloved classic, The Next Level feels stale and safe in comparison.
The film largely follows the same narrative of a world in danger, and the importance of recovering a mystic jewel is a rehash. The first film played fast and loose with the rules of video games, cleverly introducing the concept of cutscenes and NPC’s before abandoning them for the sake of plot, or a tawdry joke, and while I was willing to overlook it the first time, the sequel being just as scattershot felt lazy and undeveloped rather than endearing.
Despite a disappointing plot and some occasionally horrendous lines, you would struggle to point out a single actor that didn’t pull their weight. The original cast of Johnson, Gillan, Black, and Hart are back, and are joined by Awkwafina for some body-swapping awkwardness that really captures the mannerisms and quirks of their ‘real life’ counterparts.
Alongside new characters, the film introduces a plot-device to allow players to swap characters in-game, and although contrived, it was a perfect excuse to allow these actors to show off, and I think it worked wonderfully. Kevin Hart and Dwayne Johnson – the two more wooden actors in the last film – were great at capturing the slow and laconic Glover and wisecracking DeVito respectively. Both Karen Gillan, and especially Jack Black, were great at mimicking the young actors last time around, and continue to shine here. As the newcomer, Awkwafina would have been given a pass if she wasn’t quite at the same level of comfort in the role, but was immediately convincing as both Spencer and Eddie.
The first film finished with an air of finality to it, and a promise from our protagonists to never go back in. Spencer’s decision to do so here was, at best, a stretch, but I think it was the quickest way to get back into the world of Jumanji, which the writers knew was the reason people were watching. The Next Level’s end-credit sequence shows that Sony have much more confidence in the franchise now, and already have plans for a sequel. While I’m sure whatever they produce will be successful, I just hope we next a next-gen release for a series that is quickly going stale.