“Welcome to Jumanji!”
Is it weird that I kind of relish that catchphrase, just two movies into the “new” Jumanji franchise? Squawked by an NPC in the film’s in-universe game world (played with jovial energy from Rhys Darby), that phrase kind of puts me at ease. Jumanji: The Next Level never really elevates past its family-friendly state of being (nor does it beat its predecessor in terms of heart or laughs), but it gives us the goods again while mixing things up just enough.
The gimmick this time around is that college-bound Spencer (who is the alpha leader in the game universe but unsure of himself and concerningly depressed in real life) jumps back into the world of Jumanji to find himself again. His friends, while visiting from out of town, find out and decide to save him: while reconnecting along the way. It’s a very thin premise, to the point where I’m not sure exactly how it got greenlit. Beyond the boat loads of money it’ll make, of course.
When that’s out of the way and we’re actually in the game, the whole “story worry” kind of washes away. Kevin Hart gets to flex his comedic chops a bit and essentially play an embellished Danny Glover: whose character was sucked in by accident along with the kids. Likewise, The Rock is doing his best Danny DeVito impression (Spencer’s grandfather, who was…wait for it…also sucked in by accident). That’s basically the film in a nutshell.
And it works. As the gang moves from crazy setpiece to setpiece, as the audience, we’re pretty much all smiles. Slowly but surely more game characters make their way to the forefront and more famous actors are doing silly things. The narrative never really recovers (the first film wasted Bobby Cannavale’s villain and this one similarly wastes Rory McCann), but the jokes and high-octane action never stop flowing. The video game motifs help move everything along without being too in-your-face, which allows it to double as an adventure film.
That said, Jumanji: The Next Level is always giving off a kind of quiet roar. The jokes are smile-worthy but not rip-roaringly so, especially when compared to the fresh premise of the original. Characters often hit an impasse that is immediately solved in an interesting way, or a particular plotline is rushed just for the sake of moving the script along.
Director (and co-writer) Jake Kasdan has had some hits and misses in his career, but I think he may have finally found his calling. Although it’s going to be a hassle wrangling all of these actors back time and time again, Jumanji has firmly cemented itself as the family-friendly Mission Impossible. Thin premises aside, this franchise still has life in it.