REVIEW – ‘Jumanji: The Next Level’ is a disappointingly lazy follow-up that never justifies its necessity

One of the biggest surprise packages of 2017 was undoubtedly Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, the fresh, lively, and genuinely funny sequel that kickstarted a franchise few ever expected to exist. Over 20 years after Robin Williams’ beloved family favourite, this reboot deftly proved the necessity of its existence and walked away with $962 million at the worldwide box office. Admit it. You thought it would flop.

After surprisingly taking the title as the fifth highest-grossing film of the year, beating the likes of Spider-Man: Homecoming, Thor: Ragnarok, and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, another sequel was all but assured. As witnessed earlier this year with Zombieland: Double Tap, comedy sequels are a difficult beast to conquer and very rarely succeed. And this disappointingly lazy follow-up proves this very point.

Working with the old motto of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” Jumanji: The Next Level rehashes most of the same jokes and gags from its predecessor to deliver a sequel that feels completely reductive. While it tries earnestly to offer the occasional new element, there’s nothing here that zings like the surprises found in the previous film. There’s little here to justify this sequel’s necessity other than to bring in more box office dollars.

Set one year after the events of its predecessor, Jumanji: The Next Level finds our quartet of adventurers have each gone their separate ways, with plans to reunite in their hometown for the holidays. Spencer (Alex Wolff) is a deflated and lonely NYU student, particularly after his long-distance relationship with newly-confident Martha (Morgan Turner) hit the skids. Bethany (Madison Iseman) took off on a gap year tour of the globe, seemingly becoming an Instagram star in the process. And Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain) is still spending his days pumping iron at the gym.

When Spencer returns home, he finds his childhood room has been taken over by his Grandpa Eddie (Danny DeVito), who, much to his chagrin, is recovering at the family home after recent hip surgery. Disillusioned with life and aching for the adventure found within the alternate reality world of Jumanji, Spencer pulls the old console out and is subsequently sucked back inside the game.

After realising where Spencer has gone, and fearing what could happen to him without their support, his pals reluctantly agree to re-enter Jumanji to rescue him. But, the glitchy console has its own ideas, inadvertently pulling both Grandpa Eddie and his estranged pal Milo (Danny Glover) into the game, while leaving poor Bethany behind. As with their previous adventure, the group all adopt the avatar characters found within the game. But this time, they’re not in the same bodies as before.

While Martha remains inside martial arts commando Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan), Fridge regrettably adopts the persona of portly cartographer Professor Shelly Oberon (Jack Black), with Eddie and Milo respectively taking the avatars of dashing archeologist Dr. Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson) and diminutive zoologist Franklin Finbar (Kevin Hart). With Spencer nowhere in sight, the gang must set off to find him in a completely new version of the game than the one they previously conquered.

As with the previous film, much of the comedy of Jumanji: The Next Level centres around the conceit of actors inhabiting inner characters completely at odds with their exterior appearances. In an admirable attempt to offer something different in the sequel, Johnson, Hart, and Black are asked to channel different personas this time, which, sadly, all fall terribly flat.

It’s initially entertaining to see Johnson channel DeVito’s crotchety grandpa attitude and New Jersey accent and Hart inhabit Glover’s gruff, laconic speech pattern and physical ticks, but the joke gets old very quickly, leaving you yearning for their delightful youth-based performances in the previous film. In a choice that seems terribly misguided, Black is forced to mimic the characteristics and speech of a young black man, which is as cringy as it sounds. How no one stopped the ponder this disastrous idea is beyond me.

This issue is thankfully eventually resolved, particularly for Black, but it comes far too late in the piece to truly save what preceded it. However, what does save Jumanji: The Next Level is the introduction of Ming Fleetfoot (the ever-reliable Awkwafina), a wisecracking, pickpocketing thief avatar who Spencer has inhabited this time around. As always, injecting Awkwafina into a film is like a shot of adrenalin directly to your heart, and she can’t help but completely steal this film. One can only hope her character is given more screentime in the inevitable sequel.

With three bombastic set pieces, all involving a cavalcade of dangerous CGI-generated animals, there’s plenty of action to be found in Jumanji: The Next Level. But there’s little sense of development in these pieces, as each is just randomly dumped into the film without any shred of build-up. Perhaps this is entirely intentional. That’s how video game levels often work. But even the simplest video games understand the importance of narrative flow, which is severely lacking in this sequel. Every sequence is a calamity of CGI chaos that’s ultimately a sensory overload. Sequels tend to believe they need to just go bigger to land any impact, and this one loses all sense of control.

A rule of thumb for sequels should be no previous knowledge of the franchise is required to still have a great time. They should be completely able to stand on their own two feet. Yes, it’s safe to assume those going to a sequel have seen the original, but it’s lazy to make such an assumption. The best sequels work on two levels; fan service for those familiar, yet still entirely enjoyable for those uninitiated.

Jumanji: The Next Level refuses to follow this mantra, presuming every audience member is completely up to speed with the inner workings of this saga. There are numerous gags that serve as callbacks to the predecessor, such as a reprise of Ruby’s fight sequence to the refrains of Big Mountain’s “Baby, I Love You Way,” which simply will not work without context. And when Jefferson McDonough (Nick Jonas) randomly shows up without any explanation as to who he is or why he’s there, anyone unfamiliar with the first film will be entirely lost.

This is far from a total disaster, but without the element of surprise of its predecessor, practically every moment of Jumanji: The Next Level is entirely expected and foreseen, creating a rather lifeless and hollow experience that drags on for over two hours. By rushing this sequel into production, it seems screenwriters Jake Kasdan, Jeff Pinkner, and Scott Rosenberg had little choice but to simply rework the first film and hope that nobody noticed.

If you haven’t seen the original, Jumanji: The Next Level will sure seem like a hoot, albeit one that often makes little sense. For those of us familiar with this franchise, this just feels like replaying the same game all over again. That might work in the video game world, but not at the movies.

Distributor: Sony Pictures
Cast: Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Karen Gillan, Jack Black, Danny DeVito, Danny Glover, Alex Wolff, Madison Iseman, Morgan Turner, Ser’Darius Blain, Awkwafina, Nick Jonas, Rory McCann
Director: Jake Kasdan
Producers: Dwayne Johnson, Dany Garcia, Hiram Garcia, Matt Tolmach, William Teitler, Jake Kasdan
Screenplay: Jake Kasdan, Jeff Pinkner, Scott Rosenberg
Cinematography: Gyula Pados
Production Design: Bill Brzeski
Costume Design: Louise Mingenbach
Music: Henry Jackman

Editing: Steve Edwards, Mark Helfrich, Tara Timpone
Running Time: 123 minutes
Release Date: 26th December 2019 (Australia)