With Jumanji’s past, The Next Level has no right to be this entertaining. It started as a short 1981 picture book by Chris Van Allsburg, before becoming a 1995 adventure film with Robin Williams. An animated series soon followed and was even sooner forgotten. In 2017, the franchise was rebooted for a modern audience with Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle. The board game has now become a video game, and instead of the jungle entering their home, the game players are sucked into a virtual jungle world.
The four teenagers from the Welcome to the Jungle are back, only now as college students reunited in Brantford for the holiday break. Nerdy Spencer (Alex Wolff) is struggling being away from home and maintaining his long-distance relationship with Martha (Morgan Turner). The popular Bethany (Madison Iseman) and the athletic Fridge (Ser’darius William Blain) are doing just fine starting in their new college lives, making Spencer feel even more downtrodden.
When Spencer gets home, he finds his Grandpa Eddie (Danny DeVito) has moved into his room, recovering from hip surgery and continuing his feud with former business partner Milo (Danny Glover). Spencer feels lost, any confidence gained from his experiences of the first film gone. He decides to fire up the Jumanji game console again, and disappears back into the world, despite the damage that the old console has obtained.
His loyal friends, worried about his mental health, follow him into the game. Some form of glitch happens because they leave Bethany behind and accidentally take Eddie and Milo. The narrative smartly balances getting to know these characters and where they are in their lives, before throwing them into the game (and a new body).
Martha once again becomes Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan), Eddie finds himself as the action hero Dr Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson). Fridge is disgusted to find himself incarnated as Professor Oberon (Jack Black), whose only skill is reading maps. Milo finds himself inside Franklin Finbar (Kevin Hart), armed with infinite knowledge about animals and a large backpack. Hart and Johnson are excellent as these new versions of the characters, perfectly inheriting DeVito and Glover’s mannerisms. The two geriatric players are confused about the whole concept of being inside the game, but are very excited about having working hips and knees. Adding these older characters opens up what could be a repetitive plot and takes it new levels of comedy.
The group solve ridiculous puzzles, fight scary CGI animals, and perform impossible stunts. These well-choreographed action sequences are just an excuse to watch this fantastic ensemble swap characteristics. The reason these films stand out from other family action adventures is the fact the actors are having such a great time.
Dwayne Johnson is having the most fun playing the grumpy avatar for DeVito, Hart’s slow-talking version of Milo is his funniest on screen appearance yet. Awkwafina is a fantastic addition as Ming, a cat burglar who really comes alive when she switches personality, as the characters begin to swap avatars. Although Johnson and Hart aren’t known for their thespian talents, they are fantastic as they switch between people, accents and mannerisms. The age, gender and race of the game players are visible as they jump between avatars. It’s a smart move to keep the audience entertained throughout.
Jumanji: The Next Level is smarter than it lets on. It understands the problems with both action films and video games, where the stereotypical hero wins the fight and the sexy woman needs saving despite being fully trained in combat. Under the enjoyable layers of this blockbusters is a criticism of the sexist stereotypes Hollywood has been pumping out for nearly a century. The film wants to tell you that sometimes nice guys do get the girl and the unlikeliest heroes win the fight.
The plot is largely non-existent, played out like the level of a video game. Somehow character development still seems to happen and you really root for this like bunch of misfits, even if the stakes are slim. Perhaps more remarkable, is it somehow manages to deliver a moving finale involving Awkwafina, Danny DeVito and a flying horse.
Family-friendly actions really don’t come any better than Jumanji: The Next Level. Every member of the family from kids to grandparents will find something to like. Any fault you may find with the film, is probably something the writer, director and actors have also identified and mocked.
Jumanji: The Next Level is now available on VOD
by Amelia Harvey
Amelia is a freelance writer, frustrated novelist and occasional wrangling of international students. She is especially interested in LBGTQ culture and 1960s and 70s music. She also writes for Frame Rated, The People’s Movies and Unkempt Magazine, amongst others. Her favourite films include Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind, Moulin Rouge and Closer. You can find her on Twitter @MissAmeliaNancy and letterboxd @amelianancy