Jumanji: The Next Level (2019)
A year or two down the track from the events of Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (2015), our young heroes are thrust back into the titular perilous jungle adventure virtual world after our protagonist Spencer Gilpin (Alex Wolff), not really handling college life in New York City and having broken up with girlfriend Martha (Morgan Turner), decides that existence in a computerized Lotus-Eater Machine might be preferable.
Naturally, nerdy but blossoming Martha, popular girl Bethany (Madison Iseman), and football jock Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain), who were all sucked into the game in the last movie, plunge back in to rescue him. But there’s a catch: they accidentally bring along Spencer’s cantankerous grandfather, Eddie (Hollywood veteran Danny DeVito) and his former best friend, the easygoing Milo Walker (Danny Glover from the Lethal Weapon series).
So, while everyone once again inhabits a game avatar in Jumanji, there’s been a bit of a shuffle: Martha’s still piloting martial artist Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan from Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 1 and 2), but Fridge finds himself in the body of schlubby archeologist Professor Sheldon Oberon (Jack Black from 2005’s King Kong), while Grandpa Eddie is in the heroic Dr. Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson — c’mon, you’ve seen the guy before) and Milo is zoologist Franklin ‘Mouse’ Finbar (Kevin Hart, whose first collaboration with The Rock was 2016’s Central Intelligence). Meanwhile, Bethany winds up as a horse, because why not? I hope you’re across how the metaphysics work in this thing because it’s a lot to explain, and I don’t want to have to do it twice.
The plot sees the gang endeavoring to take down warlord Jurgen the Brutal (Rory McCann putting some of that Game of Thrones cred to good work) as part of their rescue mission, which allows them to plow through some very pulpy adventure settings and scenarios, from traversing sweeping deserts on camel (Maurice Jarre’s stirring score to 1962’s Lawrence of Arabia gets referenced); to navigating a seedy, Casablanca-style hive of scum and villainy; evading booby traps and solving puzzles à la that Jones guy back in the day; and ultimately tussling with Jurgen’s horde of minions, whose aesthetic could be described as ‘Dieselpunk Hun.’ There’s even a zeppelin, for crying out loud.
What’s interesting is that tropes and ideas that could be seen as dated, corny, or even offensive (the pulp genre is redolent of colonialist assumptions, after all) are mitigated when viewed through the lens of computer gaming. There is no Jumanji: it’s a gestalt idea of a place, based on the source children’s book by Chris Van Allsburg, but layered with ideas and themes taken from about a century of cinema, 150 years of literature, and around three generations of computer gaming now to boot. Everything in it is an affectionate copy of a riff on a notion of how these kinds of stories and scenarios are supposed to go, and so as audience members, we’re in on the joke and (hopefully — I don’t speak for everyone) insulated from offense, even when Jack Black is doing a ‘black’ voice when he’s playing Fridge-as-Sheldon.
He’s not the only actor who gets to have fun doing a voice, of course. Whoever woke up one day with the thought ‘The Rock impersonating Danny DeVito’ deserves … well, something, and it’s a lot of fun to watch Johnson and Hart playing the older actors in their (comparatively) young bodies. ‘My joints are like butter!’ The Rock exclaims unbelievingly in a nasal tone as he experimentally flexes his hips, while Hart, channeling Glover, is good-naturedly baffled by everything that is happening to him, often assuming he has died and is in a strange afterlife.
Which he kind of is, as the film explores some interesting questions about aging, agency, and whether living inside a false digital world might be better than slowly dying in actual meatspace. ‘Gettin’ old sucks,’ DeVito intones in a couple of places. ‘Don’t let anybody tell ya different.’ The specter of aging adds a welcome and unexpected touch of melancholy to the whole affair. We don’t get too deep into the implications, but if it raises some questions for you, let me recommend SF author Neal Stephenson’s Fall; or, Dodge in Hell as a more serious take on the same fundamental ideas.
No, Jumanji: The Next Level is way more concerned with having a great time than in meditating on existential questions for too long, and that’s as it should be. This is kind of a perfect secondary franchise for Dwayne Johnson who looks like an action figure but exists in a world where kids don’t play with action figures anymore, they play video games, and the fact that he’s playing other people as himself lets him flex comedic chops that often go untaxed even when he’s trading tough guy zingers and punches in the Fast & Furious flicks — point yourself towards the lesser but enjoyable Get Shorty (1995) sequel Be Cool (2005) if you need a reminder of young Mr. The Rock’s fearlessness and willingness to self-parody. Hart and Black do their thing as well as their thing can be done, Kiwi comic legend Rhys Darby, Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016), returns as in-game NPC/ font of knowledge Nigel Billingsley, and so too does Colin Hanks, Orange County (2002), as fellow gamer Alex Vreeke, and Nick Jonas as his computer world alter ego, Jefferson ‘Seaplane’ McDonough. Everyone’s in fine form.
While never doing anything genuinely original, Jumanji: The Next Level is a pitch-perfect franchise episode that actually manages to both expand and improve upon its predecessor. That may sound like faint praise, but this sort of thing is harder to pull off than you would expect. Returning director and co-writer Jake Kasdan (story credit goes to Kasdan, Jeff Pinkner, and Scott Rosenberg) mixes all the elements adroitly, keeping the focus on adventure and comedy while still allowing for character development and some touching moments of human connection. Franchises being what they are, a return to Jumanji is all but assured — the closing moments of this latest episode all but guarantee it — and if this level of fun can be maintained, would be welcome.
3 / 5 – Good
Reviewed by Travis Johnson