At the end of Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, four teenagers returned from a life-threatening video game where they all lived as characters in the game that were opposite versions of themselves and found they could set aside their differences and become a close-knit group of friends. They destroyed the game to ensure no one would ever face the dangers they did again but, a billion real world dollars has a certain ability to fix any sort of fictional problem and, two years later, our heroes have returned for another adventure in the land of Jumanji. Unfortunately, a billion dollars also tends to dissuade any risk taking when a sequel gets made and much of Jumanji: The Next Level is a retread of the previous film. Still, there are enough creative set pieces, amusing jokes, and new elements to the plot to keep it interesting and entertaining.
Spencer, Alex Wolff’s nerdy high-schooler, now an NYU freshman, has lost the confidence he gained from his time as Dwayne Johnson in Jumanji and decides to reenter the game. Fearing for his safety, his friends from the first film go after him and unintentionally bring along Spencer’s grandfather, Eddie (Danny DeVito) and his estranged business partner Milo (Danny Glover). The group then goes on a quest to find Spencer and once again save Jumanji to escape the game while discovering more about themselves.
The in-game characters remain the same as before, but they are now inhabited by different real-world characters. It’s an excellent way to let the actors in the game play the same characters as before but in humorously different ways. Jack Black is no longer a technology obsessed teenage girl but an athletic college student, and Kevin Hart has traded in that athletic college student for an elderly former restaurant owner with a penchant for talking around the point, but Dwayne Johnson has perhaps the most amusing change as he goes from awkward teen to crochety old man and seems to be having the time of his life with the new role.
Perhaps the best part of the film was the addition of Glover and DeVito (though their characters were portrayed by Hart and Johnson for most of the film) as two former restaurant owners who had a falling out. The two bring back some of the pseudo-antagonistic character moments that the rest of the characters grew past in the first movie, but they also offer an entirely different perspective from the teenagers as men in the twilight of their lives not getting to live in the bodies they hoped they would grow into but the ones they used to have. Their relationship with each other and with their characters was not explored nearly so much as I would’ve hoped but it brought the film’s most impactful moments and most of the most hilarious ones.
Neither of the septuagenarians ever really seemed to grasp the concept of the video game, initially assuming they had both died and later just being generally confused. Their entire lack of understanding of what was going on was not only a great way to put in an audience surrogate for those who may have missed the last film but mirrored my own entire lack of understanding of the appeal of video games and brought me to tears with laughter as the annoyance the other characters showed towards their attitudes exactly replicated what I’ve seen myself on more than a couple occasions.
The genius of the video game setting is not only that the characters get a Freaky Friday body swap to let them appreciate each other more and face their own truths, but that it entirely removes a need for realism. Unlike other adventure movies, this one can have scenes with floating bridges and mountains made of monkeys or packs of ostriches chasing derelict dune buggies, and there is never any need to question the mechanics of it. With the obstacle of adhering to realism removed, the set pieces become more inventive, and even when CGI obscures some of what is happening, the action scenes remain exciting and compelling in their inventiveness.
The plot beats and character development may largely be pulled from Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, which itself wasn’t exactly the most original film, but the action is goofily fun to watch, the humor is consistently amusing without trying too hard most of the time, the characters remain lovable, and there’s just enough new to make it feel fresh. If this one is anywhere near the success of the last one then I’ll happily go see the sequel they set up in the final moments.