VOD film review: Jumanji: The Next Level
Mark Harrison | On 11, Apr 2020
Director: Jake Kasdan
Cast: Dwayne Johnson, Karen Gillan, Jack Black, Kevin Hart, Awkwafina, Danny DeVito
There’s no disputing that the key to the unexpected box office success of 2017’s Jumanji: Welcome To The Jungle was its terrific ensemble cast. Arriving in a similar Christmas release slot in 2019, Jumanji: The Next Level hews closely to the formula that retrofitted the 1995 Robin Williams adventure for a new audience, but plays to its strengths and gives that ensemble some room to level up.
Returning to Brantford for their Christmas break, college students Martha (Morgan Turner), Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain), and Bethany (Madison Iseman) discover that a depressed Spencer (Alex Wolff) has haphazardly repaired the destroyed Jumanji cartridge and become trapped inside the now-malfunctioning jungle again. As well as fitting into their avatars (Dwayne Johnson, Karen Gillan, Jack Black, and Kevin Hart) differently than they did last time, they’re also accompanied by a pair of squabbling oldsters (Danny DeVito and Danny Glover) on another quest.
As far as the story goes, there’s not a lot else to say. Whether it’s intentional or not that Bobby Cannavale and now Rory McCann are uninteresting video game baddies, the plot isn’t as important to this comedic incarnation of the franchise as its characters and their interplay. With surprising ease, The Next Level makes its audience content with an exciting new arena in which its stars, young and old and new, can bounce off of one another.
Among the new characters, the best addition to the bench is Danny DeVito. By the nature of the film’s virtual-reality shenanigans, his screen-time is limited to about 10 minutes altogether, but when other actors start doing their best impressions of him, his presence is felt throughout. It’s funny when Johnson is impersonating the star, but even funnier when others start taking on that same personality later in the action. Kevin Hart also fares well with his impeccable take on Danny Glover’s unhurried delivery.
With Johnson and Hart carrying the comic relief this time, Karen Gillan effortlessly steps into a well-deserved leading role, ably backed up by Jack Black playing another teenaged character to a tee – in a sensible world, an all-rounder like Gillan would have headlined about 10 big movies by now, but even as a roundabout way of making a female-led action movie, this is gratifying to watch.
The convolution of bringing back several other returning characters muddles things a little, but director Jake Kasdan and his co-writers Jeff Pinkner and Scott Rosenberg have the luxury of playing around with characters rather than refreshing the story. This time, they set up more character arcs to wrangle than they can fully pay off, but if all else fails, the performers are more than capable of carrying it.
Happily, the other new additions provide a diversion from the more tried-and-tested formula. For instance, Awkwafina’s new avatar nearly steals the entire third act for reasons that are too funny to spoil here. Plus, there’s a bravura rope-bridge chase sequence that perfectly evokes the animal mayhem of the original 1995 film, resulting in an exhilarating, franchise-best set piece.
But most of all, Jumanji: The Next Level evades any feeling of repackaged déjà vu thanks to a cast that never quits. For all the promise of the title, this is a sequel that steps in place more often than it steps up (right up to a mid-credits sting that suggests another familiar story from a future instalment) but once again, the ensemble adds to Jumanji’s replay value, with added Big DeVito Energy into the bargain. At times, they’re all that keeps this from feeling like a rehash of the previous film, but they’ll keep us coming back for more.