Jumanji: The Next Level (2019)
Written by Jake Kasdan, Jeff Pinkner, and Scott Rosenberg
Directed by Jake Kasdan
At this point, Jumanji, as a media franchise, has little to nothing to do with Chris Van Allsburg’s 1981 children’s picture book. Jumanji was already distancing itself from its origins with the 1995 adaptation starring Robin Williams. The plot was given more complexity beyond just two children playing an enchanted and troublesome board game. A lot of people missed the semi-sequel Zathura: A Space Adventure that reframed the experience as a science-fiction style story. There was also the Jumanji animated series that ran on UPN for three years and drifted even further from the book.
By the time we got to 2017’s Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, I would argue it was hard for anyone to legitimate position themselves as some sort of purist. The Hollywood machine chews up original material and regurgitates it regularly. As a fan of comic books, you come to terms with this when looking at film adaptations. Sometimes what they serve is palatable, other times you ask for your money back. Welcome to Jungle was completely inoffensive and mildly amusing. It was good enough that when I saw the trailer for this follow-up, I wasn’t immediately repulsed.
The Next Level returns to the quartet of youths from the last film: Spencer, Fridge, Martha, and Bethany. They are now young adults living out in the world with some attending college and, in Bethany’s case, building homes for the underprivileged below the equator. Spencer (Alex Wolff) has had the hardest time adjusting to the expectations of adult life, balancing his education with a job. Returning home for Christmas finds Spencer bunking with his grandfather Eddie (Danny DeVito), who laments about how terrible it is to get older. A spark is ignited, and Spencer salvages the fragments of the Jumanji game and returns to that world to live a life better than the one he has now. Once his friends discover this, they attempt to join him but find that Eddie and his former business partner Milo Walker (Danny Glover) have been sucked into the world of Jumanji as well.
One thing that is undeniable while watching this film is that Dwayne Johnson and Kevin Hart are genuinely funny movie stars. I wouldn’t say the Rock is a great actor because he essentially has a type he plays in every movie, but he very much hits the vein of a classic, highly charismatic screen star. He gets the opportunity to play Danny DeVito as that’s the person in control of the game avatar. Even funnier than that is Kevin Hart playing Danny Glover’s character. Hart is the funniest person in the film, giving a performance that is the exact opposite of the persona we expect from him. He’s very slow in his speech, seemingly aloof to the danger around them. It’s very good.
The Next Level’s plot is entirely forgettable. There’s a bad guy named Jurgen who they have to steal a stone from to save Jumanji. It’s standard video game fare, and I appreciate the writer’s not trying to make it more serious. The film is overly long, though, clocking in at a little more than two hours. Did we need set pieces that went on for so long? Probably not. The movie definitely has a point where you become exhausted from computer-generated landscapes and threats that your brain disengages. The film is much better when we get character interactions. At the end of the day, this is a children’s movie and a pretty good one. I can’t see any child not being highly entertained by the silly adventure that unfolds. I’ll likely never watch it again, but I enjoyed myself while I did.