New from Jeff York on The Establishing Shot: “JUMANJI: THE NEXT LEVEL” STRUGGLES TO RAISE THE GAME

When JUMANJI: WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE came out in 2017, it proved to be a big and somewhat surprising hit. The source material was the successful film JUMANJI, released way back in 1995, and it seemed to have run its course with a couple of inferior sequels and even an animated series. But every Hollywood hit is considered ripe for a reboot in this day and age, and thus, the franchise about the supernatural board game that traps people inside its jungle world came back with a big studio budget. Luckily, the filmmakers updated the game to be a video one, created a witty script and hired a quartet of accomplished performers to bring the material to life. Stars Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Jack Black, and Karen Gillan all return for the sequel JUMANJI: THE NEXT LEVEL and they’re in fine form. However, like most sequels, this one isn’t as good, despite its title.

The four teenagers from the first return for the next level of the franchise too. The film reintroduces us to Bethany (Madison Iseman), Fridge (Ser’Darius Blaine), and Martha (Morgan Turner) and unfortunately, their edges have been burnished off. They’ve all grown into confident, positive young adults and seem rather bland. Only Spencer (Alex Wolff), the insecure nerd, still seems as vivid as he did before. If anything, he’s even more insecure after breaking up with his girlfriend Martha. Thus, he returns home from college for Christmas, dreading running into her and his friends.

Making matters worse, Spencer’s ailing and irritable grandpa Eddie (Danny DeVito) is staying for the holidays, and he isn’t any more hospitable when his old business partner, the easy-going Milo (Danny Glover), stops by for a surprise visit. The two seniors haven’t spoken in 15 years, due to their falling-out after Milo retired from their restaurant business. DeVito always makes crankiness funny, still shining in a complex and labored set-up. To escape, Spencer re-enters Jumanji in the basement, hoping to reclaim the confidence he had while playing the heroic “Dr. Smolder Bravestone” in the game. When they other discover he’s missing, they too enter the game to rescue him. So do the two old men.

The film doesn’t show exactly how that happens, and it’s one of the first times here that the editing feels choppy and rushed to keep its weighty plot moving along. Still, it’s a hoot seeing Johnson’s Bravestone and Hart’s Finbar characters infused by the bitchy Eddie and the easygoing Milo. Hart nails Glover’s character continually, getting a big laugh with almost every slow-as-molasses line he utters. It’s especially funny, given that in the earlier film, the zoologist Finbar’s personality spoke a mile-a-minute just like Hart does in his tried-and-true screen persona.

But outside of Hart’s portrayal, the others don’t quite thrive. Jack Black isn’t as funny channeling Fridge into his stuffy “Professor Oberon” avatar as he was emulating Bethany like in the first. (Fortunately, he gets to vamp like Bethany again in the last act when she takes over.) Gillan plays Martha once again, channeled into the “Ruby Roundhouse” avatar, but since the teen is no longer a nerd, Gillan has much less to play. Johnson was wonderful in the first film playing the nuanced insecurities of Spencer, but his take on DeVito’s persona here feels one-note.

The film throws all kinds of new levels at the four to conquer, including some marauding ostriches that are both funny and scary, but the action all starts to feel too expected.  We know that these characters can and will die, yet return via the sky, so it never seems as funny or threatening as it did in the first. The set-pieces are reasonably funny, including a sojourn into a dangerous bar where they discover Spencer in the avatar of a feisty Asian thief played by Awkwafina. If only director Kasdan and his fellow scripters Jeff Pinkner and Scott Rosenberg wrote more clever schtick for their performers. Too many scenes rely on the core four running around with too little crackling banter to carry it along.

Despite the promise of Awkwafina’s comedic skills, when her avatar is taken over by Eddie, she’s as one-note as Johnson. It’s a funny idea too that Bethany is given a horse to play, but there’s nothing particularly spoiled or girlie about the stallion. The film is plagued by more and more missed opportunities like that, as it lumbers to a big finish in the castle to steal back the Jumanji jewel at stake. But even there, the writers miss giving the villain something interesting to play. Instead, Rory McCann, late of GAME OF THRONES, is left floundering with little to do but growl as the villainous Jurgen the Brutal.

This sequel has laughs and excitement, but just enough. A fresher outing would’ve benefited from all new characters in the avatars, and settings that didn’t feel so familiar. If there’s another sequel, and the ending promises one, of course, let’s hope that it’s infused with more of the new and less of the tried-and-true.

(BTW…parents should note that there are plenty of dirty jokes in this family fare that will likely go over the younger ones’ heads, but it still seems like another miscalculation to err on such a blue side.)

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