When Jumanji unexpectedly made a big screen comeback in 2017, with Sony Pictures’ sequel/reboot hybrid, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, just about everyone rolled their eyes. The movie seemed to be in particularly poor taste when one considers that the iconic lead star of the original Jumanji movie, Robin Williams passed away just a few years earlier, threatening to leave Williams’ legacy tarnished by yet another nostalgia-mining effort that no one asked for. Imagine moviegoers’ surprise then when Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle turned out to be one of the most unexpectedly entertaining movies of 2017, sneaking in right at the end of the year with a surprisingly great Holiday blockbuster, one that did the legacy of Jumanji proud, even with Robin Williams no longer being with us.
The problem with this otherwise happy ending for Jumanji’s return however is that Sony Pictures now has to replicate that dark horse success, with the inevitable sequel to their original Jumanji revival. Enter Jumanji: The Next Level, the follow-up to the astonishingly great Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, a cinematic success that even Sony must have been surprised at, particularly when it grossed just shy of a billion dollars worldwide during its theatrical run! In fact, Sony’s huge surprise success with Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle undeniably informed this seemingly unplanned sequel, a movie that’s trying to be both familiar and novel, as the same video game-inspired Jumanji world brings back familiar avatars, amid new environments, and against a new antagonist.
If you happen to be on the up-and-up with video games, then you’ll understand the final product of Jumanji: The Next Level as essentially being an expansion pack to its 2017 predecessor. Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle definitely had novelty on its side, but with Jumanji: The Next Level, most viewers likely already know how this world works, and what’s at stake. Thus, what’s left is the chance to simply mix up the obstacles, with new characters inhabiting mismatched avatars, and new stages left to complement what’s otherwise the same hook. Sometimes, this can work well, especially when the self-aware jokes are once again allowed to go for broke with some surprisingly witty video game satire. Overall though, Jumanji: The Next Level feels like a remix of familiar parts, never truly surprising or challenging the audience the way its 2017 predecessor did. It’s still an entertaining follow-up that’s worth seeing for those who already enjoyed Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, but if you’re expecting another wildly inventive cinematic adventure, you may be disappointed.
Since the events of Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, Spencer, Martha, Fridge and Bethany have all graduated high school, and gone off to separate colleges. The four have stayed in touch via group chat though, and plan a reunion in Brantford for their Christmas break. Only Spencer seems dodgier on the endeavour, and eventually disappears, whereupon it’s soon after discovered that Spencer retrieved and repaired the Jumanji game console, and likely went back into it. Since the hastily-repaired console is being kept at Spencer’s grandfather’s house as well, a glitch occurs when Martha, Fridge and Bethany agree to return to the Jumanji game world and find Spencer, which leaves Bethany unable to enter the game, and Spencer’s grandfather, Eddie, played by Danny DeVito, along with Eddie’s estranged friend, Milo, played by Danny Glover, getting sucked into the game in Bethany’s place.
As you can see, the main hook with Jumanji: The Next Level is the fact that the familiar Jumanji avatar characters have been mixed up, with only Martha retaining her original role as Karen Gillan’s Ruby Roundhouse. This time, Dwayne Johnson’s Smolder Bravestone is inhabited by Eddie, Kevin Hart’s Mouse Finbar is inhabited by Milo, and Fridge is stuck ‘playing’ as Jack Black’s Shelly Oberon. Thus begins a quest to find Spencer, who is presumably in the game as remaining avatar, Seaplane McDonough, but the characters will certainly find that the world of Jumanji is not the same as they remember it. This leads to a fairly creative batch of remixed ‘levels’, despite the objective of taking a magic stone back from a villain, and going really high with it, remaining the same as the adventure from the previous movie.
Fortunately, if there’s one great draw in Jumanji: The Next Level, it’s the fact that the actual humour behind the characters remains pretty great. The avatar shuffle proves to be a surprisingly good idea, with Johnson and Hart both clearly having a blast portraying characters that are supposed to be elderly men in strong, youthful bodies. This hook with Eddie and Milo often leads to many of the best jokes in this sequel, with Black being a little more conservative as the rather impatient Fridge by comparison, but still relishing the opportunity to mix up his role in this unlikely franchise. Gillan is the one left to mostly play the same character again, but I suppose it’s not a bad thing that the audience has a bit of a grounding rod, since it would have been a little jarring and tedious to have every character in a different body.
Beyond the inspired joke of the avatar switches though, which does manage to carry most of the runtime pretty well, the rest of the characterization in Jumanji: The Next Level feels underwhelming. Fridge, Martha and Bethany don’t feel like they have anywhere else to go from a narrative standpoint, leaving Spencer to pull them all back into the world of Jumanji, by inexplicably regressing completely as a character. This regression by Spencer is also meant to serve as a storytelling impetus for Eddie, who’s facing his own conflict, wherein he refuses to let go of his past as a restaurant owner, a venture he took on with Milo many years ago. Milo, by contrast, is more upbeat and optimistic, being especially eager to reconnect with Eddie, and the resulting Odd Couple-esque act between the two elderly men at least provides something a bit different in the lead character arcs.
Overall though, the new cast additions to Jumanji: The Next Level only have so much to work with. DeVito and Glover don’t really have a ton of screentime, and while DeVito gets some laughs in the real world, it’s primarily Milo’s avatar that drives his own humour. Likewise, Rory McCann as new villain, Jurgen the Brutal is pretty uninteresting, left to merely recycle McCann’s Game of Thrones performance, with a PG-13 rating, and a lot less wit. Awkwafina is arguably the strongest new addition to the cast, being an all-new personality in the world of Jumanji, one that actually has something useful to do in the storyline. Ultimately, this follow-up does what it can with its cast, considering that Jumanji: The Next Level is a sequel that the series’ ongoing narrative didn’t really demand, but it can only do so much when it’s being forced to work with re-purposed parts, much like the cursed game console that’s powering this entire adventure in the first place.
Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle brought itself to a perfectly satisfying conclusion when it ended, not really leaving any narrative room for another sequel. This immediately results in some dubious retcons in order to undo the previous movie’s rather definitive ending, beginning when Spencer goes back to repair the broken Jumanji console off-screen, after apparently breaking up with Martha, and going back to being an anti-social weirdo. Considering that awkward storytelling necessity, some may feel that perhaps Sony really should have left Jumanji well enough alone in its current form, since lightning was very unlikely to strike twice with this movie. To the studio’s credit however, the story they manage with this follow-up certainly isn’t bad. It just feels so very familiar, even amid this sequel’s commendable efforts to mix up both the characters and the humour.
This time, the leads find themselves in different avatars when they return to the world of the Jumanji video game, like I said, (well, mostly, save for Martha), this time finding themselves having to reclaim another sacred jewel from another villain. Sure, the villain isn’t yet another Van Pelt this time, but Rory McCann’s Jurgen the Brutal is still another undeveloped thug, and you can only do so much with that, especially when the Jumanji game’s ultimate objective is virtually unchanged in this second go-around. I imagine that this is an intentional joke to some extent, making some commentary on disposable video game arch-villains, but it doesn’t change the fact that the new quest in Jumanji: The Next Level hits too many familiar beats in the end. This movie can at least make you laugh fairly well, and keep you on your toes with some of the character work, but this is still the exact same story in many respects, merely remixed to give the illusion of being different.
That being said though, if you don’t really want any drastic changes to the story formula of Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, and that’s understandable, because it’s a great movie, then Jumanji: The Next Level will certainly provide you with a similar adventure, one with just enough fresh jokes and engaging action set pieces to satisfy. The sum of the movie’s parts is better than its overall presentation though, which just ends up feeling a little also-ran. In the end, Jumanji: The Next Level makes a bold effort to try to go somewhere new with its storytelling, but it still ends up feeling like it plays things too safe, especially when Spencer in particular has to extensively regress as a character so that this sequel can happen in the first place.
Jake Kasdan really didn’t have a great directing record before helming Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, having previously misfired with two underwhelming adult comedies, Bad Teacher and Sex Tape, before taking the Jumanji job. Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle finally allowed Kasdan to more consistently find his footing as a director though, with Jumanji: The Next Level subsequently giving Kasdan more of an opportunity to experiment with his unlikely success story. Not much has changed with Kasdan’s direction here, which feels like it’s based in the same cheeky video game satire and general comedic timing that Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle previously presented, though that’s certainly not a bad thing, especially when this kind of humour still feels like it’s got plenty of gas in the tank, even after the previous movie’s narrative was so definitively concluded.
Kasdan ultimately feels like he’s playing it just as safe as the studio clearly is though, with the script and performances behind Jumanji: The Next Level left to do most of the heavy lifting. Despite that, Kasdan still stretches a bit with some of the action at least, plus it’s clear that he works very well with many of these lead actors, especially when Jack Black in particular goes all the way back to Kasdan’s humble beginnings as the director of 2002 dramedy, Orange County. Since everyone is enjoying themselves, it’s hard for the audience not to enjoy themselves by extension, especially when the four returning Jumanji avatar leads all have such great established chemistry with each other. Even considering the clear entertainment value that Jumanji: The Next Level presents though, it still doesn’t stand out in its direction as much as it deserves to, being content to deliver a follow-up adventure that feels very similar to its predecessor in terms of style and tone, even when the script and actors are doing everything they can to convince you that the world of Jumanji is worth returning to.
Henry Jackman returns to compose the soundtrack for Jumanji: The Next Level, which, like the movie itself, is more of the same in its execution. There’s nothing really explicitly wrong with the music suite of Jumanji: The Next Level, which contains a similar sort of plucky charm during its more exciting moments, complete with on-the-nose jungle-style instrumentation, but there’s really nothing one can pick out about it either. The same is true of the audio engineering in general, which, even in a premium IMAX theatre, doesn’t really stand out in any particular way. There’s a few impressive audio effects, but a lot of the audio in the movie doesn’t feel all that intense or immersive, likely to avoid frightening younger viewers. Most of this movie does take place in a video game world, sure, but the audio doesn’t really inspire the same sense of danger or intrigue that Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle frequently pulled off, with many real-world video games ironically presenting more impressive and fleshed-out audio jobs than Jumanji: The Next Level does.
Jumanji: The Next Level does what it can to freshen up its locations and hazards, taking the characters to new Jumanji environments, such as a desert, and a tall, snowy mountain fortress, among other examples. The set design is arguably the best visual element of the movie, with the rest of the CGI ranging between being decent, to being a little underwhelming. There’s a bit of visual leeway granted when one considers that the world of Jumanji is operating in a video game, but again, even some real-world video games have better visual flourishes than what Jumanji: The Next Level ultimately presents. There are some truly impressive visual moments in this sequel, with the highlight likely being the oft-marketed rotating bridge sequence, but overall, the visual suite in Jumanji: The Next Level is about what you would expect, being good enough to satisfy, but never truly standing out.
On another note, my screening of Jumanji: The Next Level happened to be in full IMAX 3D, and between those two upgrades, the 3D ended up standing out more than the enhanced IMAX screen did. Some of the larger set pieces, like that aforementioned bridge sequence, do benefit a bit from the IMAX screen, where they’re allowed to feel more imposing and immersive, but the IMAX presentation in Jumanji: The Next Level nonetheless feels uneven. You don’t lose much by sticking with a regular digital theatre here. As for the 3D however, it’s noticeably above average, delivering immersive rain and fog effects, and helping pull audiences more into the dangers that lie throughout the many obstacles of the Jumanji game. It’s not a dealbreaker to skip the 3D and watch Jumanji: The Next Level flat in 2D, but if you happen to enjoy 3D movies, there’s enough cool 3D flourishes to make the extra few dollars worth it for a 3D ticket. The 3D may not be quite enough to make the visuals truly stand out, but it does make the visuals a little more fun, for what that’s worth.
Jumanji: The Next Level feels like it’s a lot more true to its literal title definition than its metaphorical one. As the literal ‘next level’ of the established Jumanji video game world, it’s certainly that, providing new challenges within the same established rules. As the metaphorical ‘next level’ of evolution for the franchise however, Jumanji: The Next Level falls short, ultimately being an enjoyable, but somewhat conservative sequel that can’t quite make the most of its efforts to mix up the character placement and set pieces. If you already loved Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle though, and don’t mind a simple expansion upon that movie’s original adventure, then Jumanji: The Next Level feels like a satisfying enough follow-up. It’s also true that this is probably one of the better family-friendly blockbusters that you can go see during this Holiday season, along with the cold weeks of January.
Even then though, Jumanji: The Next Level feels like it deserved to be a little more novel than it is. After the previous movie made such a surprising splash at the box office, while delivering a surprisingly impressive reinvention of the Jumanji storyline, Jumanji: The Next Level ends up being a good sequel by comparison, but not a truly great one. It’s nonetheless assuring that Jumanji still hasn’t overstayed its welcome as a revitalized movie franchise at this point, especially when a post-credits scene quite clearly teases plans for yet another sequel, but if the world of Jumanji truly aims to beckon audiences again in the near future, it will need to dig a little deeper than simply re-arranging what it’s already achieved.
- The avatar leads nicely mixing up their performances
- Some cool new set pieces
- Video game satire remains inspired
- Lacks the surprises and novelty of its predecessor
- Clumsily undoes the ending of its predecessor
- Character progression isn't nearly as rewarding