Main cast: Dwayne Johnson (Dr Smolder Bravestone), Jack Black (Professor Shelly Oberon), Kevin Hart (Franklin “Mouse” Finbar), Karen Gillan (Ruby Roundhouse), Nick Jonas (Jefferson “Seaplane” McDonough), Awkwafina (Ming), Rory McCann (Jurgen), Rhys Darby (Nigel Billingsley), Alex Wolff (Spencer Gilpin), Madison Iseman (Bethany Walker), Ser’Darius Blain (Anthony “Fridge” Johnson), Morgan Turner (Martha Kaply), Colin Hanks (Alex Vreeke), Danny Glover (Milo Walker), and Danny DeVito (Eddie Gilpin)
Director: Jake Kasdan
For better or worse, Jumanji: The Next Level is a watered down version of Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle. The two movies are not exact clones, of course, but there are even similarities to the point that I still feel like I’m watching a retread, only this version lacks the novelty factor and, worse, the heart and soul made the first movie so enjoyable.
It’s been over a year since the previous movie, and the kids have all split up to go to their respective colleges. Bethany is having the time of the world seeing places and enjoying new sights, while Martha is in that rare position of being a cool girl for once now that she’s in college. Fridge is still doing his football thing, though, while Spencer continues to whine that he’s not good enough for anyone. The latter broke it off with Martha because he felt inferior to her especially in light of her having the time of her life in college, and she will spend the rest of the movie reassuring him that he is good enough for her. Spencer was the most boring turd in the previous movie, and he continues to be the most boring turd here, while poor Fridge also remains the self-serving black guy whose first reaction in any perilous situation is to abandon his friends and run.
Fortunately, we’d be rid of these boring humans soon enough. Spencer, still whining about his uselessness and embarrassing actual gamers everywhere, decides to go back into Jumanji to experience being competent and hot… only, the console was damaged since the previous movie, and he didn’t end up being Smolder like he expected, heh. Upon noticing his absence, and discovering the repaired console in the basement of Spencer’s home, Martha and Bethany drag the predictably reluctant Fridge into the game to save Spencer… only, things go wrong. Martha ends up as Ruby, just like the last time, but Fridge ends up as Shelly Oberon. Bethany is left behind in the real world. Instead, Spencer’s cantankerous grandfather Eddie and Eddie’s frenemy Milo Walker are dragged inside in her place – with Eddie being Smolder and Milo being Mouse. Eventually, Bethany will rush to Alex’s place to have Alex figure things out and help her get into Jumanji, and they both join the gang with Alex as Seaplane and Bethany being… well, I won’t spoil that one, heh.
In Jumanji, a warlord Jurgen and his tribe are threatening to destroy Jumanji. He had recently successfully captured a magical amulet that, when kept out of sunlight, cuts off sunlight from the world with the expected dire consequences to follow. Not only do our gang have to locate Spencer, they have to retrieve the amulet and expose it to sunlight in order to safely get back to the real world. Unfortunately, Eddie can barely remember details of the present, Milo takes things perhaps a little too casually and slowly to be of use, and these two old coots are far more intent on upstaging one another than focusing to save Jumanji.
Jack Black is once again an MVP as he gets to channel his inner black kid with hilarious results, but Dwayne Johnson is unexpectedly solid here as well. Mr Johnson has to channel a typical character Danny DeVito tends to play these days, and his mannerisms and tone are shockingly on point and hilarious. Awkwafina is also great at delivering the funny, although for the most part she’s just playing the same character she normally does on stage and on screen – not that this is a bad thing, of course. Oddly enough, Bethany, who was one of the best characters in the previous movie, plays a very minor role compared to her friends – maybe there are already three larger than life comedy machine here and they don’t want another one. As for Danny Glover, he plays the straight man to Danny DeVito’s cranky fellow with good effect, while Nick Jonas may as well not be there as his role is pretty minimal that he could have been easily removed without affecting the movie much. Poor Karen Gillan, her character is the sanest one of the bunch, but this also means that most of the time Ruby is lost amidst the larger than life characters around her. As for Fridge, ugh. For how much Jake Kasdan loves to portray himself as a friend of diversity in social media, he has directed and co-written yet another movie where a black male character – the token black guy to his white buddies, to boot – embodies the negative stereotypes typically associated with such a character (cowardice, greed, lack of loyalty, lasciviousness).
Still, the set pieces are gorgeous, and the action moments are enough to deliver the thrills. However, the characters are all one note and the cast that comes back this time around go through basically the same personal drama that they went through in the previous movie. The movie attempts to showcase Eddie and Milo as the emotional core of the movie, but their relationship is a tired, clichéd, overdone one that holds little surprises – right down to the insulting premise of how a friendship between a black person and a white person is, in a movie, designed solely for the black character being a vehicle for the white character to show the world how enlightened and improved he eventually becomes. This is the equivalent of the annoying “I have a black friend, so I am a really, really good person!” spiel white people like to adopt to pat themselves in the back. Then again, that’s par for the course when it comes to woke Hollywood, sigh.
Anyway, the magic is done in Jumanji: The Next Level, mostly because the movie just goes through the motions to repeat the formula that made the first movie a surprise hit without doing much to keep things fresh. Sure, they have different people playing the avatars for most of the movie, but nothing really changes to mix things up as these avatars still behave like they did in the previous movie.
Worse, this movie is even more of a thinly-veiled vehicle for Dwayne Johnson to once again play his boring brand: the hero who can do anything and everything without having any flaw to keep things interesting. The NPCs in Jumanji this time around treat Smolder as the only character that matters; everyone else is just tagging along with him. Surprise, Smolder goes solo to save the day at the end too! So yes, this time around, the movie ups the Rock worship, doesn’t bother with the heart and soul that made the previous movie so much fun, and expect me to be dazzled by the CGI and Rock worship alone.
This is a sequel that takes the next level down, not up.