Jack Black and Karen Gillan in Jumanji: The Next Level (Photo: Columbia)
JUMANJI: THE NEXT LEVEL
★★ (out of four)
DIRECTED BY Jake Kasdan
STARS Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart
(For a look at The 10 Best & 10 Worst Films of 2019, go here.)
Arriving on the scene two Christmases ago, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle proved to be a box office bonanza — and with good reason. Armed with ample amounts of good cheer and no small measure of clever plotting, it told the tale of four kids who find themselves represented as adult avatars inside a do-or-die video game. Movies based on video games might stink on ice, but movies about video games, like Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle and the Wreck-It Ralph twofer, were getting it right.
Not unexpectedly, Jumanji: The Next Level mostly settles for being more of the same, with a few twists and turns to offer some minor degree of separation from its predecessor. The four kids from the first film (played by Alex Wolff, Morgan Turner, Madison Iseman and Ser’Darius Blain) are back, as are the avatars (Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Jack Black and Karen Gillan). But new characters are added — Danny DeVito and Danny Glover as bickering seniors, Awkwafina as yet another avatar — and the previous kid-to-avatar matches are mixed up to allow for some variety in characterizations.
It works, but only in small spurts. The reason that the kids end up back in the game is feeble even by sequel standards, and the usually reliable Johnson seems ill-at-ease in some of his impersonations (his natural exuberance means he’s better pretending to be a young boy than an old man). For every exciting action sequence, there’s one that’s merely laborious. And the plot-within-the-game is so dry that I had to check my notes to recall it. (Oh, yeah, it had to do with the retrieval of a stolen jewel. I think.)
Yet the biggest problem with the film is its basic familiarity. The thrill of Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle was discovering and exploring this strange land alongside the teen protagonists and chuckling as they awkwardly tried to adapt to their new grown-up bodies. Here, the thrill is gone, and while Jumanji: The Next Level manages to maintain viewer interest, it does so in the most coasting manner possible. Perhaps the movie should have been named Jumanji: Playing at a Superficial Level.