The first JUMANJI reboot-sequel from 2017 was unexpected in almost every way.
The only unsurprising thing was that it got made. The 1995 Robin Williams movie is a classic for anyone who grew up in the 90s, and monetarily it was a big enough success that it was just a matter of time before studios saw fit to return to that particular well for a refill. What was really surprising was that the film wasn’t just a cheap, soulless cash-in, but an actually charming, inventive, and heartfelt adventure comedy that made the whole thing look effortless.
JUMANJI: THE NEXT LEVEL is not quite that.
It’s not a bad film at all. It’s still charming and often very funny, but if this had been the film they released in 2017, I don’t think the new series would have gotten off the ground as it did. It hits all the same beats that JUMANJI: WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE does, and it even replicates much of the plot and set pieces, yet it feels very much like it’s doing so more out of contractual requirement than anything else.
THE NEXT LEVEL picks up a year later. The lead characters, Spencer, Fridge, Martha, and Bethany, are now in college and spread across the country. After the events inside JUMANJI, they’ve grown close, yet are struggling to maintain the same connection as life and adulthood forces them apart. Spencer especially is struggling. Inside the game he was Dr. Smoulder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson), renowned explorer and hunk of prime grade intensity. In reality he’s an asmatic, socially awkward kid who still can’t believe that anyone, much less his girlfriend actually likes his presence. Even as his friends reach out, Spencer retreats within himself, and soon feels that JUMANJI just might be his only answer to ever feel worthwhile again.
This is such a terrific setup. Not only because it allows for the characters to grow in a natural and organic manner, but because it acknowledges that life isn’t as simple as happily ever after. Insecurities don’t go away, they evolve into something different, and we each deal with them in a personal and unique manner. WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE worked so well, because it acknowledged the power of fantasy in helping us find inner strength through role-play, and NEXT LEVEL allows for that metaphor to be taken to the next logical step: At some point we need to learn to exist without total reliance on that fantasy. It can always be there to remind us of who we are, but it can’t define our existence.
It is a shame that the film never follows through on that promise. Not that I was expecting deep soul searching from a family film like NEXT LEVEL to begin with. But when the immediate predecessor allowed for characters to face some frank truths about growing up, it feels like a step back to not have that discussion now. Especially when the film deals heavily in themes of holding on to friendships throughout the years, accepting your own shortcomings, and even dealing with the harsh reality that you might never become the ideal person you feel that you can be and how that is not a failure on your part.
Luckily much of that disappointment is alleviated by a very game cast, who are once again the reason this reboot works so well. Newcomers Danny DeVito and Danny Glover bring surprising tenderness and gravitas to their relatively minor roles, and the young cast of the real world outside Jumanji have gotten noticeably better between films.
Johnson feels once again much less of an actor and more of a brand that he’s carefully cultivating. Sure, he’s very game to send up Danny DeVito’s mannerisms in a broad and mostly funny part, but there’s never a sense that he’s willing to actually be the butt of the joke. Every one of the set ups usually ends with the joke either being that he’s really strong, really handsome, or that women can’t resist him. It’s a weird brand of insecure humor that seems to be the cornerstone for all traditional male stars today. What’s truly baffling about the whole thing is that Johnson has such a great screen presence and is so likable that even with all this baggage he comes off likable. One can only imagine what he could do if he was as gleefully unburdened by his image as he was at the start of his career.
Meanwhile Karen Gillan and Kevin Hart feel way more comfortable in their parts. Gillan has grown over the past decade into a world class action heroine, and she is once again terrific as Ruby Roundhouse. One can only wonder why she isn’t leading a franchise of her own. Hart delivers a nuanced and hilarious version of Danny Glover, yet never overplays or hams up the performance. It’s never in question that underneath the naive ‘aw shucks’ routine is a man hurting over the loss of his friend.
Jack Black is the other half of the two MVP’s of this show. In the last film he played a teen girl trapped in the body of, well, Jack Black, and stole the show with a performance that was at once funny and brutally honest. He’s now playing the avatar of Ser’Darius Blain, and boy could that have easily gone very, very wrong. But Black proves once again what a talented actor he is, and finds the heart of Blain’s performance as the insecure but loyal jock.
If it wasn’t for Awkwafina, I would have argued that Black was again the star of the show. But the super-talented actress, coming off a multi-year run of critical and commercial hits, nearly steals the entire film from under him. Saying much about her part would be a spoiler, except that if she doesn’t come back for every sequel, I’ll throw a fit.
What I found interesting this time I around is that I didn’t care much for the action itself. Not that any of it is bad – It’s always fun to watch Dwayne Johnson muscle his way out of trouble. There’s also a genuinely great sequence involving a canyon, a dozen rope bridges and geometry that works wonders. But a lot of it was already done, and done better in the predecessor. Another problem is that the stakes don’t feel as high this time around. The rules are still mostly the same, but much of it is played for laughs, when in the previous film there was a genuine sense of repercussions for literally throwing your life away. Now characters returning into the game after barely surviving last time feels more like an obligation than a necessity.
A lot of the criticism sounds much harsher than it is, especially since JUMANJI: THE NEXT LEVEL is a thoroughly entertaining and fun movie. It hits the sweet spot of adventure films that can entertain anyone regardless of their age. The only reason it feels disappointing is because the first film was such an unexpected treat that any sequel was bound to have huge expectations heaped on it.
So it’s not as good as it used to be. Nothing ever is.