JUMANJI: THE NEXT LEVEL

Reviewed by GREG KING

Director: Jake Kasdan

Stars: Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Jack Black, Karen Gillan, Danny De Vito, Danny Glover, Awkwafina, Alex Wolff, Ser’Darius Blain, Morgan Turner, Madison Iseman, Rory McCann, Bebe Neuwirth, Marin Hinkle, Colin Hanks, Nick Jonas, Rhys Darby.

Welcome back to the jungle!

Jack Black, Kevin Hart, Dwayne Johnson, Karen Gillan, and Awkwafina in Jumanji: The Next Level (2019)

With this sequel to 2017’s reboot of Jumanji, returning director Jake Kasdan aims to bring a fresh new take to the concept of humans trapped inside a 1990’s video game. And he has brought back the stars of that film to reprise their roles, albeit with a twist. As with the original Jumanji from 1995, which starred Robin Williams, Jumanji: The Next Level is loosely based on the children’s book written by Chris Van Allsburg. As with any video game, it offers a new experience and often new avatars every time you play, and that’s what Kasdan and co-writer Jeff Pinkner have done here, shaking up the expected body swap scenario and level of adventure from the previous film.

Jumanji: The Next Level is set one year after the events of the previous film when a quartet of high school teens were catapulted into a classic video game.  Now the nerdy Spencer (again played by Alex Wolff), Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain), Martha (Morgan Turner) and Bethany (Madison Iseman) have finished high school and gone their separate ways. But while three of them have managed to stay in touch regularly, Spencer has isolated himself, feeling that in the real world he falls short of the ideals of courage, confidence and physical strength that he found in the persona of his avatar Dr Bravestone. Instead he dives back into game.

When his friends arrive at his house looking for him, they realise what he has done. They reluctantly decide they have to journey back into the game themselves to try and find Spencer and bring him home safely. They fire up the broken game, but something goes wrong. Sucked into the world of Jumanji this time is Spencer’s aged, ailing, curmudgeonly grandfather Eddie (Danny De Vito) and his estranged former business partner and best friend Milo (Danny Glover), while Bethany gets left behind.

In a neat twist on the original, this time the body swap sees Eddie assume the avatar of the heroic, muscle bound archaeologist Dr Bravestone (again played by Dwayne Johnson), while Milo becomes nerdy zoologist Frankie Faber (Kevin Hart). The two older men adjust to their new bodies and physical prowess, which provides some laughs. The bickering pair also get a chance at reforging their once close bond of friendship. Martha again becomes Ruby Roundhouse (again played by Karen Gillan), the kick ass action heroine a la a low rent Lara Croft, while Fridge finds himself in the body of Professor Oberon (Jack Black).

The quartet’s dangerous mission this time around sees them trying to find the famed Falcon Jewel, a fabulous gemstone that guarantees good harvests for the kingdom of Jumanji. But the jewel has been stolen and locked away by Jurgen the Brutal (Rory McCann, from Game Of Thrones, etc), which has resulted in the kingdom being laid bare from sever drought and food shortages. The trek to recover the jewel and restore the kingdom to prosperity takes our heroes from the jungle environment of the first film through to an arid and seemingly endless desert and a treacherous snow-covered mountainous region. Along the way there are encounters with a horde of stampeding ostriches, and they are chased across some dangerous rope bridges by some angry mandrill monkeys largely created through the magic of some superb CGI effects. And they finally meet up with Spencer, whose new avatar is Ming Fleetfoot (Awkwafina, from The Farewell, etc), a cat burglar who has been trying unsuccessfully to recover the jewel.

The chemistry between the four stars is again evident as they bicker and try to negotiate the rules of the game. But there is less of the overt sexual tension between the characters this time around. Johnson seems to be having fun and demonstrates a strong affinity for some self-effacing humour, while Hart is not as annoying as usual, and he does a good job of channelling Glover’s slow and deliberate speech patterns. And Black has a busy time as he gets to convey three different personalities here.

Like the video games it tries to emulate, Jumanji: The Next Level operates with its own internal logic and rules. The film is certainly fast paced, and Kasdan doesn’t really give audiences much time to catch their breath between scenes or overthink what is happening.

Jumanji: The Next Level has been nicely shot by returning cinematographer Gyula Pados, who captures some stunning scenery from a range of locations, from the jungles of Hawaii to the deserts of New Mexico and the snow country of Calgary.

The film also explores universal themes of friendship, courage, teamwork, aging, and mortality. But there is a bit of a nasty edge to the action this time around, despite this being aimed at family audiences, especially with a scene in which Jurgen feeds the chopped up remains of one of his friends to a pair of ravenous hyenas. This may be a bit too strong for younger audiences.

Jumanji: The Next Level delivers what audiences expect and is a bit of fun for the holiday season.

★★★

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