The best video game sequels are those that take all the things you loved about the original and elevate them. They still feel familiar – the characters, world and tone are the same – but they’re different enough to feel fresh and new.
Just like the video game at its core, “Jumanji: The Next Level,” is even more expansive, entertaining and ridiculous this time around.
After 2017’s modernized reboot “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” turned out to be a surprisingly enjoyable adventure, writer-director Jake Kasdan and his core cast are back to take on the next level. Starring Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Jack Black and Karen Gillan, as well as newcomers Danny DeVito, Danny Glover and Awkwafina, “The Next Level” has no shortage of star power.
“The Next Level” opens as the stars’ teenage counterparts reunite over Christmas break after having parted ways at the conclusion of the previous film. The only catch is that Spencer (Alex Wolff) isn’t having nearly as much success in the real world as his friends. Instead, he preferred the comforts of Jumanji and the abilities he was given as the hulking Dr. Smolder Bravestone (Johnson). Feeling inadequate, Spencer gives in, boots up the video game and reenters the fantasy world he and his friends narrowly escaped.
Once his friends figure out what has happened, Martha (Morgan Turner), Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain) and Bethany (Madison Iseman) know they must follow Spencer into the game if they want to see their friend again – but they aren’t the only ones who get dragged into the jungle. Spencer’s grandfather, Eddie (Danny DeVito), and his old business partner, Milo (Danny Glover), are unexpectedly sucked into the game, too.
Instead of simply replaying the same level, the gang has a new challenge and this time they’re facing a trek through the desert, jungle and snow to defeat the evil Jurgen the Brutal (Rory McCann). But that’s not the only twist – each player is a different avatar this time around, so that means we get The Rock doing his best Danny DeVito impression and Hart tackling Glover.
Let’s get one thing straight. “The Next Level” isn’t going to win any awards. I doubt Martin Scorsese would consider it “cinema,” but that’s perfectly fine. It doesn’t need an air-tight plot or stunning cinematography to be enjoyable. It’s exactly what it needs to be – a fun, lighthearted adventure that’s charming and genuinely funny.
By mixing up the characters and their corresponding avatars, “The Next Level” adds a new feel to the film, as well as a new challenge for the actors. Instead of Johnson’s natural charm and bravado, he’s now channeling DeVito’s elderly foolishness. This works particularly well for Hart, who can oftentimes overact and exhaust audiences with his relentless antics, but as Glover, he’s far more subdued.
However, once again, the film’s biggest winner is Jack Black. As Professor Sheldon “Shelly” Oberon, Black is the nerdy scientist who struggles to keep up with his more athletically inclined teammates. In “Welcome to the Jungle,” Black’s character was brought to life by the ditzy teenage Bethany, but this time he’s representing the hulking football star, Fridge.
But Black’s versatility allows for much more. Halfway through the film, the characters swap avatars again, and Black takes a turn as Martha, before returning to Fridge and eventually back to Bethany. Black is able to seamlessly alternate between characters and channel each one’s defining characteristics so that whoever is underneath becomes immediately recognizable.
When “The Next Level” isn’t embracing its high-speed, over the top adventure, it falters a bit. The attempt to include emotional subplots centered around Spencer and Martha’s romance and Eddie and Milo’s friendship often feel forced and cliched due to fairly by the book dialogue. But again, nobody comes to “Jumanji” expecting moving sentimentality. Just give me the swarming ostriches!
“Jumanji: The Next Level” is exactly what it needs to be – nothing more, nothing less. It may not leave a profound, lasting impact on its audiences, but it knows that. As a result, it leans into the fun and delivers an the perfect holiday blockbuster filled with humor and heart.
Star Rating: 3.5 out of 5
Zach Goins is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association based in Raleigh, N.C. Zach co-founded Inside The Film Room in 2018 and serves as Editor-in-Chief of the website and co-host of the podcast. Zach also serves as a film critic for CLTure.org.