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Jumanji: The Next Level Movie Review

Jumanji: The Next Level (2019) movie poster Jumanji: The Next Level

Theatrical Release: December 13, 2019 / Running Time: 123 Minutes / Rating: PG-13

Director: Jake Kasdan / Writers: Jake Kasdan, Jeff Pinkner, Scott Rosenberg (screenplay); Chris Van Allsburg (book Jumanji)

Cast: Dwayne Johnson (Dr. Smolder Bravestone), Kevin Hart (Franklin "Mouse" Finbar), Jack Black (Professor Sheldon Oberon), Karen Gillan (Ruby Roundhouse), Awkwafina (Ming Fleetfoot), Nick Jonas (Jefferson "Seaplane" McDonough), Alex Wolff (Spencer Gilpin), Morgan Turner (Martha Kaply), Madison Iseman (Bethany Walker), Ser'Darius Blain (Anthony "Fridge" Johnson), Danny DeVito (Grandpa Eddie Gilpin), Danny Glover (Milo Walker), Rhys Darby (Nigel Billingsley), Colin Hanks (Alex Vreeke), Rory McCann (Jurgen the Brutal), Marin Hinkle (Janice), Bebe Neuwirth (Nora Shepherd)


Adapted from Chris van Allsburg's 1981 children's book, the original Jumanji was released at the end of 1995. It was a little more adventurous than the family comedies with which Robin Williams was ruling the box office those days,
but still a comfortable fit with the funnyman's brand of entertainment. Despite mixed reviews and what was then considered a steep budget (though inflation only adjusts to low nine figures today) mandated by what were state of the art visual effects, the film still turned a healthy profit. Since then, enough cable broadcasts and childhood memories turned Jumanji into comfort cinema for many children of the '90s.

Jump ahead to the end of 2017, when we got Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle. No one had been clamoring for a sequel, but bearing little resemblance to the Joe Johnston-directed original, this lapsed one assembled star power and performed like gangbusters for Sony, grossing nearly a billion dollars worldwide on a comparably modest budget of $90 million. If you don't have brands and franchises these days, you can't compete with the other big movie studios anymore. Well, no one can compete with Disney, for whom a billion worldwide is practically expected of most of their tentpoles. But everyone else is trying.

Sony's best luck in recent years has been the pair of Spider-Man movies that, well, have required them to share profits with Disney in exchange for part of the production costs and the privilege of existing within the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Sony's other attempts to cultivate franchises they own completely have largely faltered, as seen in the dreary performance of this year's Men in Black: International and Charlie's Angels. But Jumanji was a hit and people generally liked it a lot more than I did. The four lead actors, supporting cast, and director Jake Kasdan have all agreed to come back and do it again in Jumanji: The Next Level.

It feels a tad disingenuous to consider The Next Level a threequel (or a fourquel that includes fellow Van Allsburg adaptation Zathura, which according to Jack Black we are supposed to) because it arrives so shortly after the second installment and these two are virtually nothing like that Robin Williams vehicle, whose charm mostly holds up even if its computer-generated effects largely do not.

The "Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle|" gang -- Kevin Hart, Dwayne Johnson, Karen Gillan, Jack Black -- returns in "Jumanji: The Next Level."

You'll recall that wheras the the '90s film revolved around the playing of a board game, the majority of Welcome to the Jungle took place inside a video game and our movie stars -- Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Jack Black, and Karen Gillan -- were merely the avatars assigned to our teenaged gamers. We open with those gamers, paying special notice to Spencer (Alex Wolff), who has moved to New York for college and drifted apart from the others, including his girlfriend Martha (Morgan Turner) as their relationship has been put on a heartbreaking pause.

With Spencer back home in New Hampshire for the holidays, the film is in no hurry to return us to the jungle, allowing us to instead familiarize ourselves with Spencer's grandfather Eddie (Danny DeVito) and his estranged best friend/former business partner Milo (Danny Glover), who shows up to make breakfast after a number of his phone calls go unreturned.

Eventually, Spencer heads down to the basement, pops in the seemingly 16-bit video game cartridge and is back in Jumanji. The others -- Martha, Fridge (Ser'Darius Blain), and Bethany (Madison Iseman) -- follow him into there, along with the two feuding old guys. This means the return of our leads -- the big one (Johnson), the little one (Hart), the fat one (Black), and the token female (Gillan) -- and the return of animal and nature-based adventure. This time around, our real players end up in different bodies. DeVito's character is inside Dwayne Johnson, who does a poor job of recreating the "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia" star's distinct speech. Glover ends up inside the ordinarily motormouthed Kevin Hart, whose slow-talking, gentle take on the old-timer (basically Glover's Royal Tenenbaums character) is the funniest thing in the film by far. Fridge is in Jack Black, which isn't a great fit. Martha, who's going by M nowadays, is back in Gillan (because why would they let the midriff-baring female get to attempt some comedy?). Meanwhile, Spencer ends up inside a new character named Ming (Awkwafina, who would be a breath of fresh air if she got to do anything more than her own underwhelming DeVito impression) and Bethany briefly is embodied by a horse. Fortunately for them, Hart/Glover's zoologist can interpret animal speech.

Potential 2019 Academy Award nominee Awkwafina joins the fray as Ming Fleetfoot, an avatar of Spencer and later Grandpa Eddie.

The design is dizzying and the narrative is even more threadbare than the last outing's. That one was credited to four screenwriters and this one, no better or worse, sees two of them (Scott Rosenberg and Jeff Pinkner) return and
share screenplay credit with Kasdan, who picks up his first writing credit in over a decade.

The son of legendary Raiders of the Lost Ark and Empire Strikes Back scribe Lawrence Kasdan and older brother of Jonathan (who wrote Solo: A Star Wars Story with their dad), Kasdanhad a really promising filmmaking career going as far as I was concerned. He wrote and directed two of my favorite comedies from the 2000s, Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story and The TV Set. Both of those flopped, and his directorial track record since then was hit (Bad Teacher) and miss (Sex Tape) as he bounced back and forth between film and television. Now, he's got a desirable, undoubtedly well-paying gig at the helm of this inexplicably popular franchise. But the humanity and humor of his early work is just impossible to locate here. His two Jumanji movies are a mess, unfolding with broad, unimaginative gags that mostly do not work. But I guess they must have worked if we're back here again in the same busy season taking on another Star Wars movie with a staggering theater count.

You'd think that someone with the background and experience of Kasdan, who was directing and producing "Freaks and Geeks" in his early twenties, would seize this opportunity to do something inventive here. But the last Jumanji succeeded with minimal invention, so what is the incentive to mix things up? The Kasdan at the helm of these Jumanji movies seems to have the same pandering, dumb-it-down style that makes so many live-action family comedies hard to watch past a certain age. Think Shawn Levy at his worst and with material that lacks even the enchantment of the Night at the Museum sequels. The art and commerce sides of filmmaking are currently looming over Kasdan's shoulders like a little angel and devil. I fear he's listening to the wrong one, though his financial advisor would no doubt disagree.

There has been worse cinema that is rewarded commercially than these relatively harmless diversions. But I don't believe in going easy on something just because it's targeted at least partially at children, not the most discerning of demographics. It's not unreasonable to expect something more creative and fulfilling than the soon-forgotten desert and mountain hijinks we get here.

Related Reviews:
Now in Theaters: Frozen II Knives Out Charlie's Angels
Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle
Dwayne Johnson: Journey 2: The Mysterious Island Skyscraper Rampage | Kevin Hart: Central Intelligence
Awkwafina: The Farewell Ocean's Eight Crazy Rich Asians | Danny DeVito: Matilda | Danny Glover: The Old Man & the Gun

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Reviewed December 11, 2019.

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