New from Al and Linda Lerner on Movies and Shakers: Jumanji: The Next Level

Game On! again for the Jumanji crew. Writer/Director Jake Kasdan uses the same body-switching gimmick from the original. That might feel stale were it not for the charm Jack Black, Karen Gillan, Dwayne Johnson and Kevin Hart infuse in their characters.  Kasdan also made the decision that more is better so he also adds Danny DeVito, Danny Glover and Awkwafina to the mix. Devito, as Spencer’s (Alex Wolff) crusty Grandpa Eddie is at first a bit troublesome. He plays “old” as incompetent and angry until the final act when he redeems his portrayal with warm sentiment, emotion and pathos that elevates the project beyond a sequel money grab. 

Kasdan is back after the surprising success of 2017’s Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle that took in over $960 million despite the competition from Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Is this déjà vu?

It takes very little time to get into this thin plot. We’re back in Jumanji in a matter of minutes, despite the fact that the characters were on the verge of death and the video game itself was irreparably destroyed in Welcome to the Jungle. Probably a smart move for Kasdan since trying to explain any of this would slow the pace and just confuse the issue even more.

 

Fun is the overriding theme of this trip back to Jumanji. This time the gang leaves the jungle and ventures into the desert and then to snow-capped peaks. The novel twist here is that there are multiple body-switches throughout the script giving each actor the opportunity to explore more character-types. Jack Black, for instance, spends a good deal of time as the game piece for Fridge (Ser’Darius Bain) meaning he has to play a black teenager and get the laughs while being careful to not step over into racial stereotyping. Black is so talented, he’s actually able to pull it off.

Awkwafina seems to have a blast inhabiting Eddie’s character in her body. Her playful recreation of Eddie’s New Hampshire accent is an added bonus. The bad guys, led by Game of Thrones’ Rory McCann, aren’t even that bad despite being named Jurgen the Brutal. He still looks as menacing as he did as “The Hound.”

Dwayne Johnson also gets to impersonate Danny Devito’s Grandpa Eddie and he revels in poking good natured fun at the iconic Hollywood veteran. It’s a good thing that the actors are having a good time or else this 123 minute exercise in a bloated script might have become intolerable.

CGI rules the day for all the action sequences that look very much like retreads of the first movie.  Scary animal encounters are also back. Ostrichs and mandrills are anything but cuddly, but they will neither leave you with nightmares, nor much to remember. Being chased by the rabid monkeys on a network of moving planked bridges ala Indiana Jones makes for some visually interesting, heavy duty action scenes.

Kasdan also chooses to rework a lot of the jokes from the original which just feels lazy even as the audience chuckles. How many cake references does one movie need? Where the first movie made the attempt to weave in the video game experience into the narrative, The Next Level dismisses gamers completely. Gaming is a different world now. 

Despite the negatives, there is still much here to entertain an audience. Especially in the gung-ho performances by Jack Black, Awkwafina and Danny DeVito. This film is simply an excuse to shut out whatever is going on in the world and escape to an alternate plane.

There is a mid-credits tease that certainly points to a third installment of the franchise. By the looks of it, there is going to be a distinctly different approach to the formula. Can’t say we’re waiting breathlessly for another Jumanji, but this one is entertaining enough, especially with an expanded star-studded cast playing multiple characters working their charms.

 Sony Pictures              2 hours 3 minutes             PG-13

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