Zathura, the sequel to both the book Jumanji and the original 1995 film adaptation starring Robin Williams, figured the key to sequel success was maintaining the same formula but switching out the variables, which theoretically makes sense. Only film-wise that meant switching out Robin Williams for not Robin Williams, which is perhaps why Zathura failed to perform at the box office. Still, 12 years later the Jumanji franchise returned to the screen with Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, an utterly predictable but solidly crafted piece of family entertainment that left reluctant adults everywhere thinking, “you know what, that wasn’t as bad as I feared.”
With box office receipts just short of $1 billion, it’s hardly surprising that just two short years later, director Jake Kasdan and his cast are back for more, and taking a decidedly more familiar approach to the whole “sequel” thing. Since the original set of variables worked out so well, Jumanji: The Next Level isn’t willing to part with any of them, and instead follows the more traditional path of bringing back everything from the first one, sprinkling a few new additions on top, and crossing its fingers that audiences are convinced the sprinkles add enough pizazz to warrant the cost of admission.
Admittedly, the sprinkles on top are some pretty good ones. Welcome to the Jungle did its studio formula job of resolving all the conflicts by the end of the third act, which of course is not especially conducive to a sequel. While The Next Level tries to stir things up by giving Spencer (Alex Wolff) some serious first-semester college blues, inspiring him to go back into the game he and his friends spent the first film desperate to get out of, his biggest problem is really more the illusion of a problem and the film never really manages to delude you into thinking otherwise. The film itself seems to know this, which is presumably why it adds Spencer’s grandfather Eddie (Danny DeVito) and his estranged best friend Milo (Danny Glover) into the mix, even though their connections, thematically and otherwise, to the original quartet are tenuous at best. From the minute they arrive on screen, you know exactly where things are headed right down to the stops they’ll take along the way, and then they proceed to do so at a gentle walking pace. It’s an utterly unremarkable story but one that’s in the end solidly told, which sadly is more than can be said for many of its most direct competitors. Winning by comparison is still a win. That said, if you want to add the whole intergenerational conflict angle to the story, why not do something with Spencer’s mom (Marin Hinkle), standing literally right there and still unnamed after two films? But I digress.
Of all the newcomers, Awkwafina has the most to actually work with and does a commendably entertaining job as Jumanji’s latest avatar, Ming Lightfoot, who joins the original crew of Indiana Jones spoof Dr. Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson), crop-topped badass Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillian), handy zoologist Frank Finbar (Kevin Hart), and athletically challenged brainiac Sheldon Oberon (Jack Black). Also new to the franchise is Rory McCann as new baddie Jurgen the Brutal, a Viking-esque bruiser still wearing yesterday’s eyeliner whose name was definitely created by a random name generator some mid-2000s D&D player left behind in some dusty corner of the internet. His personality is a void banking on Rory McCann’s presence being enough to make former Game of Thrones fans project their fondest Hound memories onto aforementioned nothingness. It’s a pretty cheap tactic at the end of the day, but its also pretty effective, which narratively seems to be this franchise’s motto. It’s never genuinely good, but it’s also somewhat surprisingly never depressingly bad.
While most of the jokes feel like echoes of other films I have seen but cannot distinctly recall—the smattering of “old people” jokes added in because of the grandfather storyline are particularly regrettable—at the end of the day, it’s consistently Jack Black who gets the biggest laughs. Somehow the man has mastered the art of hamming things up in a way that still somehow feels fundamentally cinematic instead of jarringly theatrical. It’s an impressive skill when you think about it, and this movie leaves you plenty of time to think because it’s not like your brain is required elsewhere. Like its predecessor, The Next Level is the sort of film that tells you what it’s going to do, does it, and then recaps afterward for good measure. And yes, I understand, it is a children’s film. Still.
While The Next Level falls into the typical sequel trap of unsuccessfully putting on some shiny bells and whistles to distract from a fundamental lack of new story ideas, it strongly resembles its predecessor in both pitfalls and merits. Ultimately, Jumanji: The Next Level is a dumb film smartly made. This is faint praise, but if you find yourself this holiday suddenly stuck with a gaggle of children belonging to extended family and a few hours to kill, the prospect of relative calm, movie theater popcorn, and well-made mediocrity might suddenly start to sound like the Holy Grail, which is why I’m sure it’s going to make a killing.
And finally, to answer the guy sitting in the row behind me who wondered aloud, “sh*t, does that mean there’s going to be another one?” after the credits rolled:
Image sources (in order of posting): Hiram Garcia, Sony Pictures Entertainment