By Andrea Thompson
Every movie that’s remotely profitable gets a sequel now, so “Jumanji: The Next Level” was something of a given after the first made enough money for a second installment. What this franchise has become couldn’t be called deep, but a genuine case could be made for enjoyment. Too bad this particular sequel doesn’t seem to recognize why sequels are made in the first place.
Sequels aren’t only supposed to build on what came before; they should expand on it, giving audiences what they enjoyed the first time around while venturing into new territory. But “Jumanji: The Next Level” is mostly a rehash of the first, not really allowing its video game avatars to really showcase what their real-life counterparts have learned until the third act, when it feels overdue.
There’s a good reason for that, at least. About a year after the group beat the game for the first time, they’ve all graduated high school and gone their separate ways, yet remain close. Well, except for Spencer (Alex Wolff), who’s in New York and still struggling with much of the issues he was grappling with in the first film. His insecurities have led him to isolate himself from his friends, and even break things off with Martha (Morgan Turner). After they all reunite in their hometown for the holidays, Spencer is the one who kicks things off by heading back into the game he only barely managed to repair after it was trashed. Once his friends discover what Spencer has done, they reluctantly follow.
They think they know what to expect, but the game’s glitches and entirely new plans for them means unfamiliar territory. They also have to introduce a few new players to Jumanji, since Spencer’s grandfather Eddie (Danny DeVito) and his former best friend Milo (Danny Glover), from whom he’s been estranged for the past fifteen years, are pulled in too. None of them are even given a chance to choose avatars, which leads to Eddie being the new Dwayne Johnson, while Spencer for the most part becomes a new avatar, a thief named Ming (Awkwafina).
Martha at least remains in familiar bodily territory as the dancing assassin played by Karen Gillan, but even she isn’t given much of a chance to strut her stuff. Eddie and Milo have a believable chemistry regardless of who’s playing them, but the movie makes them more irritating than not, with Martha having to explain over and over that not only are they in a video game, but how everything functions. Yes movie, we get it. They’re old. The most enjoyment we get out of this comes from Awkwafina, who believably and hilariously channels DeVito’s mannerisms later on.
Later on is the key recurring phrase here. Things really don’t get fun until the third act, when everyone is playing as the avatar most familiar to them, and the action finally ramps up. At least Rory McCann, aka The Hound on “Game of Thrones,” gets slightly more of an opportunity to create an impression as bad guy Jurgen the Brutal than Bobby Cannavale ever did as Van Pelt. But despite a few fun set pieces that come before, the action and fun arrive too late to make “Jumanji: The Next Level” anything other than another forgettable action comedy that’s kinda short on conflict and laughs throughout its two hour runtime.