JUMANJI: THE NEXT LEVEL – Review
So what’s a favorite gift that’s usually under the Christmas tree, usually straight from the North Pole? Aside from the dolls (and action figures), craft sets, and sports equipment. a staple would be a game, more specifically a board game. That was the thinking of the celebrated author of children’s’ books, Chris Van Allsburg, when he came up with the beloved “kid lit’ classic that was made into an even more beloved 1995 fantasy adventure flick, JUMANJI. Twenty-two years later “reboot fever'”struck Sony/Columbia Studios (along with most of Hollywood), so they decided to do an upgrade. First, they tossed out the dice, spinners, and all the board game fixtures and opted to go high tech (somewhat) and make it a video game. Mind you, it was somewhat “old school” with a cartridge, console, and joysticks, rather than the computer and internet systems. Oh, and instead of things escaping from the game, the players would be “sucked in” and become avatars (played by a quartet of adult stars). This “re-imagining” was a box office smash two years ago, so here comes the third (if you count 2005’s ZATHURA: A SPACE ADVENTURE) spin-off/reboot/sequel, JUMANJI: THE NEXT LEVEL.
As Christmas break approaches, the four young heroes of the last film, then high schoolers, now college freshmen, are looking forward to reuniting in their New Hampshire hometown. Well, all but Spencer (Alex Wolff), who’s just not adjusting to life at his NYC school. Hey, he’s even taking a “break” from his new, now long-distance GF, Martha (Morgan Turner). When he does make it to the family house, he finds out that he’ll have to share a room with his cranky Grandpa’ Eddie (Danny DeVito), who’s nursing a hip injury. That first morning, while Spence’s mom is at work, they get a surprise visit from Eddie’s former business partner Milo (Danny Glover). Things are tense between the two, so Spence, instead of joining his old pals at the town diner for Brunch, retreats to the basement and digs out the, now busted, Jumanji video game. Sometime later, Martha along with Bethany (Madison Iseman) and “Fridge” (Ser’Darius Blain). drop by to see why Spence didn’t show. They get their answer when they head to the basement to find the game now repaired and sending out sparks. It activates and pulls in Martha and Fridgein, via a glowing green light. Boom, they’re back in the jungle with the same avatars. But some things have changed. Martha is still Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan), but Fridge is now Prof. Oberon (Jack Black). Both are stunned to find that Milo is “Mouse” Finbar (Kevin Hart) and Eddie is Smulder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson) Seems the guys upstairs get zapped, too. Where’s Spence and Bethany? Nigel (Rhys Darby) soon shows up to explain their mission: something about retrieving a mystical magic jewel stolen by Jorgen the Brutal (Rory McCann) and his legion of nasties. Can they succeed, this time facing sand and ice, before using up their game lives (only three), and finally return to the real world? Again? Otherwise, it’s game over…for reals!
The returning cast slips into their roles with ease, though they get to put on new spin via their “real world” players. Most entertaining may be Hart (never thought I’d say that) who expertly mimics the slow, measured line delivery of Glover, quite a change from his usual manic, motor-mouthed characters. Less successful, but still committed, is Johnson doing a crotchety ole’ East “Coastaaar” as DeVito, while still looking fierce in his Doc Savage cosplay (whatever happened to the movie project). Black, as the Fridge-filled Prof is still a comic whirlwind as he riffs on RDJ in TROPIC THUNDER. And free from the blue make-up of her Marvel role, Gillan makes a terrific action heroine, as she exchanges those short shorts for a snowsuit (and this time she does “dance fighting” and twirls a mean set of nun-chucks). Also returning is Nick Jonas as “Seaplane”, who appears to be auditioning for an Indiana Jones prequel (or maybe a slightly older Jonny Quest). Adding to the avatar mix is Awkwafina playing master thief Ming, though she’s not given much to work with in the script. It’s a shame that this gifted comic actress (a true scene-stealer) is saddled with bits and one-liners that fall flat. On the other hand, we’re treated to the still sharp comic skills of Mr. DeVito, who continues to get laughs with just a glare or his slow shuffle. And his pairing with the affable but meandering (get to the point already) Glover as Milo is pure comedy team gold. Let’s get them their own “buddy comedy” because neither is “too old for this…er…stuff”.
Jake Kasdan also returns as the director and co-writer, though he ‘s often a traffic cop/tour guide getting us and the principals from one familiar set-piece and sequence to the next. Sure they’ve changed locales, quickly going from the previous jungle settings to the deserts of 1980’s action epics, to the snowy mountains right out WHERE EAGLES DARE or where the Avengers fought Baron Strucker, but they go through the usual routines of bicker, fight, and flee, then repeat. All this is toward thwarting a most generic villain, who we are told is “brutal”, but who mainly towers over Johnson while yelling orders to a platoon of extras who may have wandered off the set of the next Mad Max movie. Sure the CGI beasties are much better than those in the 95 original, but they often seem to have little real “weight” with the manic mandrills bouncing from one rope bridge to another with little impact. Although, big kudos for somehow making the ostriches intimidating. Still, youngsters will get a kick out of Johnson’s cartoon heroics as he slaps the baddies into solid walls (is he part Kryptonian), and at the slapstick antics of Hart and Black, but those a bit older may be tempted to check the time (it could use a good 15 minute trim). At least with the two Dannys, JUMANJI: THE NEXT LEVEL often rises slightly above the level of the usual sequel. Now turn off that game and go outside and play, you kids!
2 Out of 4