If you’ve always wished Dwayne Johnson would do an entire movie with Danny DeVito’s voice, then you’re in luck. Jumanji: The Next Level takes the surprisingly clever humor we first saw in 2017’s massively popular Welcome to the Jungle to new heights by upping the body-switching concept from the previous installment to an entirely new plateau, yielding crazier scenarios and even bigger laughs this time because the juxtaposed identities between characters (and actors) are even more hilariously discrepant.
The journey from Van Allsburg’s 1981 children’s book to blockbuster film franchise has been anything but timely. 1995’s Jumanji, starring Robin Williams, introduced the supernatural board game that comes to life and unleashes jungle-themed hazards into the real world. It was a major box-office success and has since gained a cult following, especially after Williams’ death in 2014. Fans would have to wait twenty-two years for a sequel, which had little to do with the original, which shifted the board game premise to a video game, taking the characters into Jumanji rather than bringing Jumanji to the outside world.
The change was a smart one and Welcome to the Jungle became a surprise hit for both critics and audiences alike. Amazingly, despite being launched almost directly alongside Star Wars: The Force Awakens, it became one of Sony Pictures’ biggest hits ever. Needless to say, anything that makes money gets a sequel these days, so welcome to The Next Level.
Spencer (Alex Wolff) has decided to go back into the video game, only this time he goes alone as he’s suffering a real world identity crisis. The “real” Spencer is a little wimpy, but within the digital gaming world of Jumanji, playing as Dr. Bravestone (Johnson), the bulky hero with literally no weaknesses, he’s got everything he needs to succeed. Or thinks he does, anyway. Wanting to feel that rush again, Spencer sneaks back into Jumanji without telling anyone.
His three friends, Martha (Morgan Turner), Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain), and Bethany (Madison Iseman), notice he’s missing and venture into the game to bring him home. But not everyone arrives as planned as they discover only Fridge and Martha make it through to the other side, leaving Bethany still in the real world. Further complicating things is that Spencer’s grandfather, Eddie (DeVito) and Eddie’s former best friend, Milo (Danny Glover), are along for the ride. A system glitch means our heroes don’t get to choose their own avatars and have been assigned mix-matched doppelgangers that don’t match their personalities at all.
Spencer is nowhere to be found, and he’s obviously not in Dr. Bravestone’s buffed-up frame because it’s Eddie who gets “stuck” with that avatar this time. The group must now figure out what’s happened to their friend, as well as solving the quest inside the game, which leads them on a journey to locate and recover a magical necklace that’s been stolen by an evil warlord, Jurgen the Brutal (Rory McCann), so they can help restore fertility to the land of Jumanji.
The basic premise of The Next Level is watching popular actors acting as other actors, which only works if there’s enough personality for each to work with. Apart from the joyfully absurd idea of watching Johnson impersonating Danny DeVito, we get to imagine Danny Glover’s large frame stuffed into the short stature of Kevin Hart, which is as amazing as it sounds. Watching them play off each other is just the creative spark this franchise was looking for to stay fresh.
Karen Gillan and Jack Black also return as in-game avatars, each giving solid performances as both are required at some point to act out a personality far different than their presumed ones. As if all that body-swapping wasn’t confusing enough, the presence of DeVito and Glover takes the fish-out-of-water premise to, literally, the next level by inserting older people into a video game. It really works.
Jake Kasdan also returns to direct and co-write the movie (along with Jeff Pinkner and Scott Rosenberg), which provides a consistency with both films. But rather than become complacent with simply repeating the same formula again, The Next Level keeps things fresh with inventive new concepts and jungle perils. There’s also a few fun little Easter eggs from the original movie tossed in for hardcore fans to spot and gush over. The otherwise manic pace does occasionally slow down in parts, but the filmmakers are wise enough to pull things back quickly.
In any world, the humor in Jumanji: The Next Level would be more than enough to satisfy fans who were probably just happy to revisit this video game universe again, but this film gives us an unexpectedly deep character arc that brings a sense of purpose to the story as a whole. Who would have ever thought that we’d get a quality franchise from the original Jumanji movie, especially without Robin Williams? But this new cast has proven themselves up to the task, turning what could have been a cheap cash grab into a genuinely hilarious – and moving – experience. Definitely recommended.