REVIEW: Jumanji: The Next Level [2019]

Rating: 6 out of 10.
  • Rating: PG-13 | Runtime: 123 minutes
    Release Date: December 13th, 2019 (USA)
    Studio: Columbia Pictures / Sony Pictures Releasing
    Director(s): Jake Kasdan
    Writer(s): Jake Kasdan and Jeff Pinkner & Scott Rosenberg / Chris Van Allsburg (book)

Wherever they may be.

The first cinematic adaptation of Chris Van Allsburg‘s Jumanji brought the board game’s wild jungle environment to its players’ quiet suburbia for a crazy survival adventure. Jake Kasdan and company could have easily done the exact same thing again with their reboot/sequel hybrid Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle due to over twenty years having past since its predecessor’s release, but they chose to breathe new life into the property instead. And it worked beautifully to earn critical, creative, and financial success. They revamped board and dice into console and controllers, transported a new set of players into the game’s fresh pixel makeover, and let us watch the insanity of teenage kids overcoming perilous situations within the adult bodies of pre-determined avatars. It was a perfectly orchestrated contemporary update.

How would Kasdan and co-writers Jeff Pinkner and Scott Rosenberg take things even further with a third chapter? It’s a question I’ll admit to being intrigued by considering a two-year hiatus is a totally different beast compared to two decades. The logical answer would of course be to reverse things again and bring Jumanji back to Earth. Not enough time has passed to evolve the game from cartridge to something even newer (A cloud-based app perhaps?), so putting Dr. Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson), Mouse Finbar (Kevin Hart), Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan), and Professor Shelly Oberon (Jack Black) on the back burner in order for Spencer (Alex Wolff), Martha (Morgan Turner), Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain), and Bethany (Madison Iseman) to take control makes sense. Let them practice what they learned.

That’s not what happened, though. Rather than shift the dynamic in a way that makes narrative sense, the filmmakers stuck with what worked. The tired notion they wonderfully rejected to build Welcome to the Jungle—one that says sequels should be additive, not transformational—was now the thing they embraced. Rather than applaud their writing, they decided to lean on the gimmick that was meant to be an entry point. They forgot (or perhaps never fully understood) that Bravestone and company weren’t the reason we enjoyed the previous film. No, it was how Spencer and company used those avatars to conquer their fears. Johnson, Hart, Gillan, and Black were vessels. Tools. They were weapons Spencer, Martha, Fridge, and Bethany wielded to take control of their lives.

Jumanji: The Next Level is therefore left floating in a creatively bankrupt vacuum wherein everything that happened to these kids is rendered meaningless. Kasdan not only allows the journey from high school to college to reduce Spencer’s self-esteem back to zero, he also gives the game a hard reboot too. The quartet is thrown back in with a completely new mission and (mostly) new avatars as everyone (besides Martha/Ruby) finds him/herself in a different body (including Awkwafina‘s cat burglar Ming and Cyclone the black stallion). So don’t worry if you forgot what these kids learned the first go-round. It’s as though they didn’t learn anything. The only big difference is the inclusion of new virgin players: Spencer’s grandfather Eddie (Danny DeVito) and his ex-business partner Milo (Danny Glover).

Sorry, but that’s not enough. It’s a funny and superficially inventive way to give Johnson and Hart (Eddie and Milo respectively) something else to do while Black channels Fridge, but the overall result is little more than a rehash of what we’ve already experienced. Spencer must still remember what it means to let friends into his life while Grandpa Eddie’s parallel trajectory forces him to thaw his anger and do the same (he and Milo haven’t spoken in fifteen years). They must still reclaim a jewel from a bad guy (Rory McCann‘s Jurgen the Brutal), ensure they don’t each die more than twice, and escape. Their strengths and weaknesses get them out of and into trouble during new puzzles and a couple convenient enhancements provide extra bonus powers.

It’s sadly way too familiar and shows how those twenty years off in-between were the best thing to happen to what’s become a fully-fledged franchise. Think about it. If a sequel to the original got green-lit back in 1995, the result probably would have been a carbon copy of its own success. It was only through that lengthy wait that technological advancements allowed for alterations. What was “vintage” then (board games) found its contemporary counterpart to what is “vintage” now (8-bit Sega/Nintendo games). What worked as a straight kids film (brother and sister team-up) was allowed to mature to PG-13 levels of romance and adolescent fickleness causing rifts in teenage relationships. Hindsight supplied opportunity that cashing in can’t. You can get away with it, but only so far.

To that end, The Next Level is fine. I still enjoyed the structural ingenuity (because its ability to create unforgettable juxtapositions and physically comedic performances is hilarious), but I couldn’t care about the characters underneath. Where Spencer and crew were empathetic and relatable in Welcome to the Jungle (no matter who portrayed them), they’ve become the empty vessels this time so the “tools” (Bravestone, et al.) can be our main focus. And it didn’t have to be that way. As a mid-credit epilogue reveals, plans for another sequel confirm Kasdan knew what needed to be done. He merely chose to wait one more movie. Depending on this one’s continued success, that greedy (for lack of a more judicious term) maneuver might cost him the opportunity to prove it.

[2] Jack Black, Karen Gillan, Dwayne Johnson and Awkwafina star in Jumanji: The Next Level PHOTO BY: Frank Masi © 2019 CTMG, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
[3] Nick Jonas, Kevin Hart and Karen Gillan star in Jumanji: The Next Level PHOTO BY: Frank Masi © 2019 CTMG, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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