A couple of years ago, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle broke out as the biggest sleeper hit of 2017. Acting as counter-programming to Star Wars: The Last Jedi, the film exceeded expectations due to the unique way the video game concept was implemented, and perhaps more importantly the fantastic chemistry of a likable and charismatic cast. So naturally, when the film legged it’s way to nearly a billion worldwide dollars, a sequel seemed inevitable. Well, that sequel is here, and boy have the returns diminished.
We’re re-introduced to the unlikely quartet of friends from the original. Bethany (Madison Iseman) is first seen taking a pic of a scenic vista in an exotic location, a clever reversal of her shallow selfies during her debut in the original. She group-texts Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain) and Martha (Morgan Turner) about how she can’t wait to reconnect during Christmas. Conspicuous by his absence in these group chats is Spencer (Alex Wolff), whose low self-esteem has wrecked his relationship with Martha. Feeling inadequate, he decides to go back into Jumanji, where he can once again assume the avatar of Dr. Smolder Bravestone, played by Dwayne Johnson.
But things don’t go as expected, as we find out when Spencer’s friends re-enter the game to go looking for him. Except this time, they’re accompanied by Spencer’s grandfather Eddie (Danny Devito) and Eddie’s estranged friend Milo (Danny Glover). They end up assuming the avatars portrayed by Dwayne Johnson and Kevin Hart, respectively, which means we get to see the two actors impersonate the mannerisms of Devito and Glover. Hart seems to be having more success than The Rock in this imitation game, but neither has great material to build on.
The character motivations of Spencer and Martha seem consistent with their flaws in the last film, but it’s all hampered by bad writing and execution. At least until The Rock, Kevin Hart, Karen Gillan, and Jack Black arrive on screen to somewhat salvage everything, The Next Level is a hard watch. The first 40 minutes are plagued by bland dialogue, awful comedic timing, and awkward pauses. On multiple occasions, characters sit at tables and robotically rummage through their lines, leaving one to wonder if this was really the best take they filmed.
Part of the problem is that many of the actors don’t have much to work with this time around. Where the first film gave mostly everyone an arc, here many of the characters remain in stasis. That’s why all of Fridge’s dialogue sounds like the token black character in a sitcom from 1992. Meanwhile, Bethany is a 2-dimensional good girl, who has a smile plastered across her face at all times as if someone off screen is going to douse her with a pot of boiling water if she relaxes her muscles for just a second.
The story here is mostly with Spencer/Martha and Eddie/Milo. One is a story about self-esteem and personal value, while the other is about two bickering former friends. Why Devito and Glover have enough charm to make their scenes watchable, their conflict is never actually funny. That’s the consequence of the film’s commitment to the lowest bar of comedy possible – every joke is an unimaginative formality. One scene involves Eddie, as Bravestone, telling an osterich to go away – and the ‘punchline’ ends exactly how you would expect. Compare that to the original, where a character’s weakness to cake is revealed to be much more literal and imperative than we previously believed. When you can make the first film’s humor seem like sophisticated comedy by comparison, something is seriously wrong.
But perhaps there just wasn’t as much inspiration this time around for a sequel that was clearly rushed as a response to an outstanding box office performance. The conflict between Spencer and Martha seems to be too easily solved by one conversation, while the story between Eddie and Milo is weighed down by exposition and bad jokes. This is why the second half of the film just feels like a lesser retread of the first. Once again, the characters have to “SAVE JUMANJI!!~!” but there isn’t really any inner turmoil between the characters to make the adventure more engaging, even as the film would like to pretend that is the case.
Unsurprisingly, the end of the film teases another sequel, one that feels like a direct homage to the 1995 Jumanji, starring Robin Williams. Perhaps that inevitable film will feel more complete since the filmmakers will have more time to prepare. The current film, however, is in need of a patch update.