Cinematic Releases: Jumanji: The Next Level (2019)-Reviewed

In a world where everything is in a constant state of being sequilized, remade, rebooted, rinse & repeat, the original Jumanji seemed like an odd choice to dust off and try again. Its lead star had tragically passed away not that long ago and while the original was a huge box office it, it had been 20 years. Nostalgia is a hell of a drug though because 2017's sequel/reboot Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle exploded at the box office, making just shy of $1 billion. Coupled with a good showing critically, all of a sudden Jumanji was a viable franchise and two years later it's back again with Jumanji: The Next Level.

With everyone from our primary cast returning, both the real life kids and their video game counterparts, The Next Level takes place about year after the first. The kids are coming back to their town from college on Christmas Break. While Martha (Morgan Turner), Bethany (Madison Iseman) and Fridge (Ser'Darius Blain) all excitedly meet up at brunch, Spencer (Alex Wolff) is a no show. He's having an identity crisis of sorts and decides to take solace back inside the game of Jumanji. This leaves his friends no choice but to come find him. Unfortunately for them (and Spencer's grandpa Eddie and his friend Milo Walker), the game malfunctions and brings everyone, excluding Bethany, in the house along. For an added bit of hijinks, they're placed into different avatars this time too.

From the jump, this is a fun, clever way to get your big four (Johnson, Black, Gillan and Hart) back while doing something wholly different. Martha is the only to get back into her original avatar, Ruby Roundhouse, and the rest are all dispersed into different bodies. Grandpa Eddie (Danny DeVito) is thrown into Dr. Bravestone and Milo Walker (Danny Glover) is dropped into Finbar. This is a silly but cute way for the filmmakers to continue the buddy comedy stylings of Dwayne Johnson and Kevin Hart but tweak it ever so slightly so it plays as "fresh." Johnson is having a ball playing DeVito and for the first few minutes, it's a funny sight gag. The shock of seeing this hulking ex-wrestler play a 70-year old man speaking in a "New YAWK" accent is disarming and hilarious. But if you've seen the trailer, you've seen most of the jokes and unfortunately, Johnson is one of the film's few weak links. The schtick gets very old, very quickly and it's apparent Johnson only has one mode in this role. Thankfully, he's saved by Kevin Hart who takes his usual high energy performance all the way down as Danny Glover. This is easily my favorite performance Hart has ever given. He's so keyed into Glover's mannerisms and cadence of speaking. It's an atypically low key performance that helps diffuse Johnson's wonky high energy. 

If Johnson was one of the weak links this time around, he's nothing compared to Jack Black. In the last one, Bethany was dropped into Black's body and he got to play up the stereotypes of a teenage girl trapped in a grown man's body. This time Fridge gets dropped in. And Black plays all of that up. It's a questionable decision that at once isn't funny and reads pretty bad. What makes it worse is that Black isn't even committed to the bit so you'll get pure Jack Black moments of comedy in one line and then the next is him screaming in Fridge's voice. It's uncomfortable to say the least.

It's Karen Gillan and newcomer to the franchise, Awkwafina, who make this movie theirs though. Gillan is about as perfect a movie star as you can get. She looks like an ass kicker, she's so funny and her range is dynamite. She imbues Martha by way of Ruby with more life and humanity than any of the other stars in the film. She nails all of the awkwardness that clouds you at that age as you try to find yourself. And she does so while still being the bad ass action star of the film. That this is the same person that plays cold-blooded killer turned hero, Nebula in the MCU is astonishing. 

To give away what Awkwafina's role is would be to spoil major developments of the film but as usual, she's excellent. It's been a hell of a year for Awkwafina since being the least known member of Ocean's 8. It's wonderful seeing her along for the ride and her role requires the silliness she's become known for and the more somber seriousness she deployed terrifically in The Farewell. She, Gillan and Hart are the most well rounded of the game's avatars and it's because of them that so much of the film works.

A perfect kid's blockbuster should have a healthy mix of heart, humor and heroics. The original Jumanji had it, Welcome to the Jungle did too and now The Next Level continues that tradition in fun and exciting ways. That it doesn't always feel like a retread is a testament to writers Jake Kasdan, Jeff Pinker & Scott Rosenberg. It's ostensibly a video game movie so the skeletons of the last one are there. The gang has to retrieve a gem from some big bad by going from point A to B to C. These writers understand what makes a great video game, well great. Like the last one, this has all the trappings of an open world video game come to life and despite not being based on one, these two films make a strong case for being the best video game adaptations ever made. It also follows the template for most good sequels by basically doing a lot of the same things but bigger. As stated, it doesn't feel like a retread even though it absolutely is. You're just having too much fun with the increasingly wacky set pieces and the cast to really notice. 

While Jumanji: The Next Level isn't as thrilling or as exciting as the last one, it retains the beating heart of this franchise. It would be so easy for these to be cynical, of-the-moment cash ins. That they aren’t, especially this one, is so surprising and welcome. Offering new puzzles and worlds to explore, The Next Level takes the franchise in fun, if familiar directions. It was never going to be as much of a fun surprise as the last one. That it doesn't fall on its face but instead stands well enough on its own might be the biggest accomplishment of all.

That all said, perhaps this might be the best time to put Jumanji back on the shelf as it appears all has been wrung out of it as anyone could have. But this looks like it's going to be huge at the box office this weekend so we'll see you all again in two years. Hopefully with less Jack Black doing whatever it is he decided to do here.