It was a brave move by Sony to release a sequel to Jumanji (1995) back in 2017. Would people be interested in a sequel to a film that had been in development hell for almost as long as Robin Williams’s character had been trapped inside the titular board game?
Even bigger of a struggle for Sony was the risky move of releasing Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (2017) amidst a competitive slate of films. The most imposing of these blockbusters being Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017); the likes of which being on track, and eventually succeeding, to gross over $1 billion at the box-office.
Jumanji would need to adapt if it ought to survive. Better yet, thrive. The reinvention of the series, featuring none of the original film’s cast and changing the setting from real-world pandemonium into a jungle video-game retelling, had transformed the rambunctious family-adventure traits of the 1995 film into an enjoyable light-hearted action-comedy. And who better to spearhead such a product than the king of reinvigorating franchises himself, Dwayne ‘the artist formerly known as The Rock’ Johnson.
Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle had managed to keep the wild exuberance of the original film while translating the antiquated board-games sensibilities of its 1995 predecessor into the twenty-first century. It had enough of a spiritual connection to the original property to take advantage of the IP but was refined enough to stand independently amongst the series. With Sony now confident that their billion-dollar-franchise has the stamina to compete against the Mouse House, it was inevitable that a sequel would be greenlit.
Alas, here we are two years later with Jumanji: The Next Level; an underwhelming rehash of the 2017 film that was as if returning director Jake Kasdan had taken out the cartridge, blown off the dust, and stuck it back into the console.
Having graduated high school and set out on their own separate paths into adulthood, the motley crew of misfits from Welcome to the Jungle are forced into returning to the dangerous world of Jumanji. This time, however, they are accompanied by Danny DeVito and Danny Glover; two feuding business partners with an unresolved score to settle. The journey to freedom, promised in the form of a glowing artifact that requires sunlight, beats at the same tempo of the previous film. The likes of which involve characters overcoming hordes of vicious animals, shady characters, and Jack Black’s teenage-girl persona (who you know orders pumpkin spiced lattes).
Jumanji: The Next Level could have overcome its derivative nature had it remained committed to its thoughtful message of positive self-image. What starts off as a journey for many of the characters to assume different avatars, with characters assuming DeVito’s ‘Ahh we in Flawriduh’ Jerry Lewis inspired New Jersey-ness a highlight, transitions into a series of gaffes taking aim at old-age and the shaming of Jack Black’s portly figure (being reduced to embarrassing body humor). As invested are the actors who are in on the joke, they are avatars being assumed by humans who are making these pointed calls. The Next Level is comfortable picking the comedic low hanging fruit. The result of this deflates what could have been a righteous celebration of body positivity.
Problematic dialogue aside, the portrayal of Dwayne Johnson and Kevin Hart as caricatures of their real-life personas is not present in Jumanji: The Next Level. Been there, done that. Johnson and Hart excel when given more to do than ham up their respective roles as the hulking Adonis and the shrieking linguist who is allergic to cake. Their ongoing bickering never runs stale and highlights the comedic prowess of these often-underscored actors. Awkwafina, who appears halfway through the film, is a welcome addition to the series; proving capable of landing both the laughs and the action. The last new-comer to the series is a jet-black horse with the convenient power to move the story forward by rescuing characters out of any dangerous situation.
The ball continues to drop in Jumanji: The Next Level when Kasdan forces avatar swaps so characters can return to their comfort zone. The convenience of this undoes what little freshness Kasdan had mustered up and comes across as though the director was impressed with every actor’s impersonation of DeVito. To his credit, Kasdan sticks clear of having white characters mimic Glover.
The action set pieces in the film are exhilarating, with Kasdan taking full effect of the vast landscapes – overflowing them with deadly critters – to offer up some truly challenging hurdles for our gang of heroes. The correlation between Jumanji and the likes of Fast and the Furious is evident, with The Next Level going full steam on the ridiculous action-ante. It is, however, unfortunate that the film’s blasé response to death nullifies any sense of peril brought about by the film’s action scenes.
To compare Jumanji: The Next Level against Welcome to the Jungle would be a discredit to both films. Though, it should be mentioned that the disappointment had with The Next Level and its ‘rinse and repeat’ mentality undercuts the originality of the predecessor. An important feat to acknowledge given the franchise’s ability to offer viable competition to a studio that threatens to homogenize the entertainment industry.
Coulda’ been worse but shoulda’ been better, the spectacle offered in Jumanji: The Next Level is unable to compensate for tasteless humor and a story that would have benefited from more time in development.
Saw one of the fastest turnarounds from filming to theatrical release for a major studio tentpole film. Filming did not begin until February 2019 and wrapped four months later in May, for a December release only seven months later. Most complete filming over a year before their release.