Jumanji: The Next Level (2019)
Columbia Pictures

Directed by: Jake Kasdan
Written by: Jeff Pinker, Scott Rosenberg, Jake Kasdan
Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Jack Black, Karen Gillan, Nick Jonas, Alex Wolff, Morgan Turner, Ser’Darius Blain, Madison Iseman, with Awkwafina, Danny Glover, and Danny DeVito

The most delightful aspect of 2017’s Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle was just that: it was delightful. Few, if anyone, suspected it would be as charming, thrilling, and exciting as it wound up being.

While Welcome to the Jungle ended in a way that seemed definitive, it also grossed nearly a billion dollars, making a sequel all but guaranteed. Jumanji: The Next Level, unfortunately, has a great deal more pressure thrown upon it compared to its predecessor.

So the writers had to come up with a terrific hook for their sequel, and boy did they find one. The idea of having the Rock play Danny DeVito playing the Rock is a very clever way to take the material. So clever that, to paraphrase Roger Ebert and his review of Star Trek IV, after coming up with it, I hope writers Jeff Pinker, Scott Rosenberg, and Jake Kasdan broke out cigars.

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Unfortunately, that is about the limit for the surprises found in The Next Level. The success of Welcome to the Jungle works against it in a way. The previous film left you slightly shocked at what a good time you were having. In The Next Level, it’s likely you’ll smile, have fun with what you’re seeing, and then go about your day.

Kevin Hart, Karen Gillan, Dwayne Johnson, Awkwafina and Jack Black star in JUMANJI: THE NEXT LEVEL

The most prominent strength here is, once again, its characters, and actors who are absolutely game to try anything. Dwayne Johnson is a movie star, yes, but he truly shows talent as an actor as well. Indeed, many of the film’s best moments come from seeing his massive frame mimic Danny DeVito’s mannerisms and accent.

It’s the story beats where the film struggles. The previous film focused on the team being sucked into the Jumanji game, after which they must beat the game by defeating the lead villain and must also rescue a fellow player trapped in the game. In the sequel, the order of priorities is slightly changed: they must rescue a fellow player trapped in the game and beat the game by defeating the lead villain.

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In the first film, having a compelling lead villain was not important. While Bobby Cannavale is a fine actor, I cannot for the life of me even remember his character’s name. As I said, the first film mainly got by thanks to the strengths of its cast and the sheer surprise of being fun. But with The Next Level, the retention of story beats includes its lead villain. Rory McCann is another fine actor, as Game of Thrones fans can attest. However, his villain here, whose name I also cannot recall, is a bore. His villainy never feels like an urgent threat to our heroes, more of a necessary sign post for this movie to travel past.

As with the previous film, Jumanji: The Next Level has strong characters and a charming cast to fall back on as its chief strengths. But if there is to be a Jumanji 3 (as there likely will be), a more compelling set of story beats will be necessary to prop them up.

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