The players return to the jungle for this disappointing video game sequel.
Dir: Jake Kasdan. US. 2019. 123mins.
The Next Level turns out to be a step down. This sequel to the smash 2017 action-adventure Jumanji: Welcome To The Jungle is undone by the same deficiencies that hamper other franchise follow-ups: it’s less fresh, less funny and less of a fun time all around. Although The Next Level manages to tap into some of the same emotional undercurrents that made the previous movie so unexpectedly poignant, the novelty of watching big stars like Dwayne Johnson and Kevin Hart embody their teenage character counterparts is blunted by familiarity. As the film’s young protagonists themselves learn, going back into this particular game probably wasn’t worth the trouble.
The cast strain to recapture the hilarious rapport that once seemed so effortless
Sony will release The Next Level on December 11 in the UK and two days later in the States. (The movie has already opened in China, grossing approximately $25 million in its opening weekend, whereas the 2017 film collected almost $40 million in the same span.) Jungle’s $962 worldwide gross may be tough to duplicate if the sequel’s word-of-mouth isn’t comparably strong.
The first film’s group of friends — nerdy Spencer (Alex Wolff), athletic Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain), sensitive Martha (Morgan Turner) and ditzy Bethany (Madison Iseman) — have scattered, moving away from home to attend separate universities. They’re meant to reunite over the holidays, but insecure Spencer decides he’s fearful of facing his pals — particularly his ex-girlfriend Martha — and so he decides to go back into the Jumanji game, where he’s the gallant and powerful avatar Bravestone (Johnson). Spencer’s friends reluctantly decide to chase after him, discovering that the game has changed since the last time they played.
Jungle director Jake Kasdan returns for the sequel, which has one very clever idea: these four friends will not all be the same avatars as they were in the previous movie. In addition, Spencer’s cranky, ailing grandfather Eddie (Danny DeVito) and estranged business partner Milo (Danny Glover) will also be joining the game — and placed into the bodies of Johnson and Hart (who is the avatar Mouse Finbar). That surprise — essentially meaning that several of Jungle’s stars are playing different characters — is a neat twist, offering some initial hope that The Next Level won’t simply be a rehash.
Unfortunately, Johnson and Hart’s new characters aren’t as funny or emotionally engaging as Spencer and Fridge were in Jungle. Likewise, Jack Black, whose avatar Oberon was “played” by the shallow Bethany in the 2017 film, isn’t as comic as the avatar for Fridge. The Next Level lacks the gleeful inventiveness of Jungle, in which three well-known stars slyly subverted their personas while embodying the insecurities and naivety of their teenage players. Absent that, it mostly feels gimmicky; the cast straining to recapture the hilarious rapport that once seemed so effortless.
The new film’s real delight is Awkwafina, who is Ming, a wily thief avatar “played” by Spencer. Awkwafina nails Wolff’s nebbish-y manner, but when Ming switches “players” during the film, the comic actress proves just as adept with her new “player,” who is very different in temperament and outlook. Awkwafina adds a welcome spark to a movie that largely repeats Jungle’s gags and signature set pieces.
The closest that The Next Level comes to genuine pathos is by suggesting that, for the elderly Eddie and Milo, diving into the Jumanji game gives these old men a second chance at life. As with Jungle, the sequel plays with the videogame concept of “multiple lives,” which is a luxury none of us have in reality. While the 2017 film argued that its young protagonists could make of their lives what they want, The Next Level acknowledges that ageing offers both rewards and perils.
This leads to some touching moments, especially from DeVito, but it’s not enough to distract from the rather routine action sequences and questionable plotting. The story never successfully justifies Spencer’s extreme decision to go back into a game he knows is incredibly dangerous, which then becomes an easy plot device to force his friends to go in after him. In the Jumanji game, the characters only have three “lives” before they’re permanently dead. After the pleasantly appealing Welcome To The Jungle, which breathed new life into a franchise that hadn’t been on screen since 1995’s Robin Williams vehicle, The Next Level becomes an inadvertent warning about wasting the opportunities we have.
Production companies: Matt Tolmach Productions, Seven Bucks, Detective Agency
Worldwide distribution: Sony
Producers: Matt Tolmach, Jake Kasdan, Dwayne Johnson, Dany Garcia, Hiram Garcia
Screenplay: Jake Kasdan, Jeff Pinkner and Scott Rosenberg, based on the book Jumanji by Chris Van Allsburg
Production design: Bill Brzeski
Editing: Mark Helfrich, Steve Edwards, Tara Timpone
Cinematography: Gyula Pados
Music: Henry Jackman
Main cast: Dwayne Johnson, Jack Black, Kevin Hart, Karen Gillan, Nick Jonas, Awkwafina, Rory McCann, Alex Wolff, Morgan Turner, Ser’Darius Blain, Madison Iseman, Danny Glover, Danny DeVito