Jake Kasdan‘s Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle was the surprise hit of 2017, being both unexpectedly good and a financial success for Sony and Columbia Pictures. The film was a semi-sequel/reboot of Joe Johnston‘s Jumanji, a fondly-remembered family film from 1995 starring the late Robin Williams. Only two years after the first/second/third film in the series (depending on who you ask, Jon Favreau‘s Zathura: A Space Adventure is part of the series as well), we now have Jumanji: The Next Level – which sees the ensemble cast returning for a new adventure in the perilous video game.
This story is set some time after the previous film, with Fridge, Bethany and Martha all having moved on with their lives but Spencer’s life has hit a rough patch. In a desperate attempt to re-live his glory days as Dr. Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson), he re-enters the video game world of Jumanji. Going after Spencer in hopes of rescuing him, his friends are joined by Spencer’s grandpa Eddie (Danny DeVito) and Milo Walker (Danny Glover), who have now inhabited the bodies of Bravestone and Mouse Finbar (Kevin Hart). With only three lives and whole new levels to explore, the team must band together to rescue Spencer and save Jumanji once again.
It’s rare to find a sequel that matches its predecessor in quality, yet Jumanji: The Next Level manages to succeed with flying colours, with fun action set-pieces, plenty of gags and enough new elements to distinguish it from the last film. There’s a much wider scope, with the action starting in the jungle, moving to a desert, a rain-forest and then to snow-capped mountains, which gives a nice sense of visual variety, even if it only makes sense in the video game mechanics of Jumanji. The film has a similar set-up, with the villain (Rory McCann) having stolen one of the jewels of Jumanji but this feels more like a neat meta-gag, an “of course they have to get another jewel” plot-line from the video game’s obligatory sequel.
We also get to see Johnson playing DeVito, which is as much fun as it sounds. Johnson commits wholeheartedly to the character, being so recognisably DeVito that I almost forgot I was actually watching a completely different actor. It’s such a radical departure from the last film which adds a really nice dynamic. However, it was Kevin Hart who really surprised me in this film with his Danny Glover/Milo Walker characterisation. In the last film, Hart was to some extent playing an exaggerated version of himself, but here delivers a wildly different performance and manages to capture heartfelt moments throughout. He’s very funny – as to be expected – but he aims for a different kind of humour and it works brilliantly. Meanwhile, Jack Black plays Fridge this time to great comic effect, whilst Karen Gillan is the only one to keep her character as Martha. Awkwafina plays a new avatar in the film, whilst Nick Jonas returns in his Seaplane avatar role, although in unexpected and interesting circumstances. The leads all have a lot of fun, with Awkwafina being a brilliant new comic aide to the rest of the ensemble and a horse turning up out of nowhere to get a few laughs (trust me, it makes sense in the film).
There seems to be more confidence this time around, many key beats from the previous film are repeated with the new characters which highlights how different the dynamics are here. Johnson and Hart are brilliantly funny, and Black gets a few good moments too, but this film really highlighted how great an action star Gillan is, managing to sell some very over-the-top sequences but not becoming a one-dimensional action-girl. If there is a weak link among the cast, it’s with Rory McCann‘s villain. McCann himself is perfectly fine in the role but there’s nothing unique to him. His scenes feel too short to really provide a sense of character and with his costume, he looks like he’s stepped straight off the set of Game of Thrones.
Despite this, Jumanji: The Next Level is a lot of fun throughout, and it was nice to switch my brain off and enjoy a ridiculously fun adventure film. There are issues – the villain and some emotional beats don’t land – but they don’t overwhelm how perfect this is as classic family entertainment for those cold winter nights.