Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle had a great premise (based on the Robin Williams film, via the original book) — sending human characters into a video game world — but a lot of time was spent in that 2017 film on the gimmick of it all. We never really got to know the people inhabiting these avatars outside of stereotypes. This time around in Jumanji: The Next Level, we do, and it makes for a much more entertaining story.The sequel starts off a while after the kids — Bethany (Madison Iseman), Martha (Morgan Turner), Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain), and Spencer (Alex Wolff) — have returned to their normal lives. While the gang is thrilled to get back together on holiday break, Spencer ends up at home with his mom and ailing, grouchy and forgetful grandfather Eddie (Danny DeVito). There, we also meet Milo (Danny Glover), a former buddy of Eddie’s who he has a beef with. It’s a longer setup than we saw in the last film, but it allows the viewer to really spend time with these characters this time around before they inevitably end up back in the Jumanji game.As you may know from the trailers, not everyone makes it back into the same avatar they had last time. Bethany is left behind, Fridge is the cartographer (Jack Black), and Eddie is Dr. Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson). Milo ends up as a certain gentleman who can be taken down by cake (Kevin Hart), while Martha appears in Ruby’s (Karen Gillan) body again. Their avatars even have some new attributes this time, such as geometry. (See? You really can use that after 10th grade.)But the characters don’t stay this way for long as there’s now electric water that switches their avatars. We’re on to the next level of the game here, plunging us into a world that is half-Mad Max and half-steampunk. The mashup is a little wonky on the eyes, but if you’re a gamer, it won’t seem so odd. Neither will the NPC woman in a red dress who seems to have come out of a Western. Not only do the new players have to find a new stone this time, but they also must deal with a new and very furry boss (Game of Thrones’ Rory McCann).The next level of the game also introduces Ming (Awkwafina), a thief and lock-picker. No one who is familiar with RPGs will be surprised to see a character like this. Awkwafina is a treasure here. Not only is her comic timing and mimicry ability absolutely on point, but she sells a lovely moment at the end of the film so well that you might tear up. (I actually wrote in my notes, “I can’t believe I’m getting teary-eyed in a Jumanji movie.”)Outside of Awkwafina, Kevin Hart deserves praise for doing an exceptionally good Danny Glover impression. Dwayne Johnson’s comic timing is always great, though he does go in and out of Danny DeVito’s voice here and there. Karen Gillan gets a lot more to do here in terms of action (and yes, dance-fighting), and Jack Black is…well, he’s Jack Black. You don’t need me to tell you that this film was written for him.
Watch the final trailer for Jumanji: The Next Level below:So what doesn’t work? Some of the jokes remain a bit corny. Almost everyone has a moment or two where they slip out of their character voices, but considering the body-switching, it’s understandable. Though it has some silly bits, Jumanji: The Next Level goes further into the lives of the people playing the game. It allows the actors to have a blast with their characterizations, with Awkwafina absolutely being the icing on the cake.(P.S. Filmgoers should also be sure you stay through at least the beginning of the end credits. There is a scene in there that sets up another sequel, and it promises a very different Jumanji film next time around.)
Jumanji: The Next Level is a blast. Instead of relying solely on its proven premise, we get to know more about the kids and the adults playing the game. There are still moments of silliness, but there is also a whole lot of heart here. What seems like something that is going to be a tired retread turns out to be far more fun than expected.