Jumanji: The Next Level (Jake Kasdan, 2019) 2½ out of 4 stars.
Genuinely, the biggest cinematic surprise of 2017 for me was Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle. Before this reboot disguised as a loose sequel hit theaters, most studios that wanted to turn an old property of theirs into a money-making franchise failed in finding the right charm and heart to make these new films work for general audiences. Jake Kasdan, director of Welcome to the Jungle, succeeded in finding genuine heart and likeability in a property that was considered dead and buried.
Two years later, Kasdan returns to the virtual world of Jumanji in Jumanji: The Next Level. A year after Spencer and his friends survived the video-game dangers of the first film, Spencer is still struggling to move on from it. In that movie, he was the fearless Dr. Smolder Bravestone, played by Dwayne Johnson, and all of his insecurities disappeared in a flash. While his friends are begging him to come back into their lives, Spencer does the unthinkable: he goes back into Jumanji. Against their better judgment, Martha, Bethany and Fridge, along with Spencer’s grandpa and his estranged business partner, go back into the game to bring their friend back.
Jumanji: The Next Level suffers greatly from the familiar story and action beats of Welcome to the Jungle. The landscapes for each level Dwayne Johnson and his team, played by Kevin Hart, Jack Black, and Karen Gillan, try to survive are different, but the stakes and stunt gags in them are ones we’ve seen before. It’s a truly frustrating case of a movie wanting to have its cake and eat it, too. Jake Kasdan pulls the greatest strengths from his cast and finds the pitch-perfect delivery for the witty and memorable dialogue that’s much akin to the writing of his father Lawrence Kasdan, writer of The Empire Strikes Back and Raiders of the Lost Ark.
The ensemble cast is fantastic and their respective comedic chops and physicality work in tandem with one another. Danny DeVito and Danny Glover are the two biggest highlights of Jumanji 2. Their story of bitter ex-business partners trying to make amends imbues the film with new themes of maturity that pair quite well with the present themes of young adults finding their place in the world. It’s a serviceable sequel that manages to keep up the thrills and comedic antics throughout most of the runtime. Dwayne Johnson and his team of intrepid explorers haven’t missed a step and their infectious shared chemistry is the real reason why I’m always looking forward to more Jumanji films.