By JASON MARTIN (@JMartZone – December 12, 2019)
Let’s dispense with too many words before we get to the central point here: If you liked Welcome to the Jungle, you’re going to love The Next Level, because nothing that worked in the original reboot is discarded. It’s building on what succeeded, rather than attempting to reinvent the wheel. This was one of the bigger surprises for me in late 2017, because I had no real expectations for it, although the premise is a lot of fun.
The cast is made up of largely loud, in-your-face, love em or hate em personalities, although very few people would say they “hate” The Rock. Consider Kevin Hart and Jack Black, however, and you’ll definitely get your share of opinions, both extremely positive and crushingly negative. It’s not a lot of middle-ground, which is funny, because I do fluctuate on them based on the product and their role within it. Jack Black can do some hilarious stuff, both as an actor or someone doing a voice, Kevin Hart can be really funny, but both can be grating and overexposed, though Black at this stage has receded into a kind of secondary slot in Hollywood.
Regardless, take the formula of the reboot and add Danny DeVito and Danny Glover to it, among others, make it both funny and heartfelt, and explain to a plausible degree why Spencer, Martha, Fridge, or Bethany would EVER consider jumping back into Jumanji, and you’ve got an easy winner for the holiday season. With some heavy handed dramas, some real life stories, and the usual animated fare, this is the half-mindless, but sensible answer to the needed popcorn film you’ll want to drop a few greenbacks on for your family while you’re off work and the kids are out of school.
If you adhere to video game culture and understand how it’s supposed to work, you’ll note, just as in the previous installment, that writers Jake Kasdan, Jeff Pinkner, and Scott Rosenberg don’t make choices that wouldn’t occur in that pixelated universe. The best decision in the casting, however, was to find two veteran actors to play Spencer’s grandfather and a friend of the family, because it’s the addition of DeVito’s Eddie and Glover’s Milo that make this movie just different enough to avoid feeling like a basic retread.
Also, those two characters form a secondary storyline that gives the film even more heart than its predecessor, and because of them, Kevin Hart arguably steals the movie, when he morphs into Glover and has to play an old man, with a cadence and tone that is so very unlike Hart in the best and most unique of ways. The story unfolds like a gaming quest, just as Welcome to the Jungle did, but with a new gem. The one thing that felt strange about the structure here is that this was the SAME cartridge, it was not a sequel game, and more playable characters exist than it feels would have in the first game. If there were a Jumanji 2, it would have synced up better. I wouldn’t expect to have found seemingly a second entire story within that first game, although that’s just based on the cartridge and memory of the machines of the time.
Sorry to nerd out there for a second. Let’s get back to the movie.
Johnson, Hart, Black, and Karen Gillan were great together last time, and Nick Jonas fit in nicely as well. They’re even better together this time, because now we’re more used to seeing them all collected together on screen interacting in this world of mystery, puzzles, and danger. How they react changes because of the real-life counterpart playing them, which HAD to shift to change how this movie feels and how these people act. The same laughs would have worked over again, but changing who was who gave us new laughs and new tributaries off the main Jumanji river.
It’s just over two hours, which feels about right, if not maybe 10 minutes or so too long, and there is a reason to stick at least through the first half of the credits. In fact, you HAVE to do so, or you’ll miss something important. The “game” plays out believably, featuring NPCs (Non Player Characters) with scripted lines and no depth, plus cutscenes. While a lot of this may sound familiar, what adds to the experience is the TWO OLD MEN THAT DON’T KNOW VIDEO GAMES AT ALL and can’t comprehend what’s going on, where they are, why they’re there, and how treacherous their situation is. It’s a joke that keeps on giving, never wears out its welcome, and in the end, there’s growth in the characters that moves them from knowing nothing to semi-understanding the predicament.
Hart definitely steals the front half of the film, although The Rock is awfully good, and Black shines halfway through and then to the end. Gillan is less “miscast” in the game than the others, which actually works to give some semblance of logic and leadership, with everyone else in various stages of a mess. Rhys Darby returns, which is never a bad thing, plus Game of Thrones favorite, Rory McCann, as the film’s main baddie boss, and Awkwafina, who is especially good when forced out of her comfort zone.
As long as they keep making these movies, I will keep seeing them and enjoying them. There’s something to be said for being fun, having enough of a continuity in story that invests us in the real-life people behind the game avatars, and for a movie knowing what it wants to be, matching that to an audience that wants it to be just that, and then giving that crowd more of what they want. Jumanji: The Next Level is familiar, treads on being too familiar, but the new characters and what they mean to the story, both in the game and in the real world, makes it a better, more well-rounded experience than what came before.
Plus, the ending is satisfying and more than just surface level, and it’s also interesting to say the least.
That one came as a surprise. This one didn’t. But the new twists make it well worth jumping back into Jumanji again. You’ll enjoy it, and while there’s some language, it’s not terrible, and even with some scary sequences, most children that have reached double digits are probably safe to see this one with you and your wife and teenagers.