by Philip Price
Director: Jake Kasdan
Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart & Jack Black
Runtime: 2 hours & 3 minutes
Much like the challenges a sequel faces in trying to stand on its own while recapturing the magic of what made the original so special, the teenage characters we met in 2017’s “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” have found it difficult to completely move on from their own experiences within the video game world; longing to reclaim such feelings of empowerment and intelligence while not being constrained by their earthly forms - the separation of this experience and actual reality has been tougher for some more than others. This is especially true for Alex Wolf’s character, Spencer, who has spent his freshman year at college feeling completely invisible and unworthy of the long-distance relationship he and Martha (Morgan Turner) are having to actually work for.
In this way, “Jumanji: The Next Level” begins not by jumping straight back into the central gag, but instead by offering a surprising study of why someone in their seemingly logical mind would want to risk their life by going back into the game in the first place. This was always going to be the conundrum for a sequel to the reboot (I feel ridiculous writing that, but it is what it is) as there was no choice other than to either have the same people return to the game or have the video game land in new hands, but regardless of who would be controlling the avatars Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Karen Gillan and Jack Black were still going to be the stars. And so, in Jake Kasdan’s sequel (co-written by Kasdan, Jeff Pinkner and Scott Rosenberg) this somewhat weighty approach is taken in order to explain how another sequel is even possible and while this along with The Rock’s Danny DeVito impersonation, Hart’s superb turn as Danny Glover and Awkwafina’s eventual turn as DeVito are all equally appreciated ‘The Next Level’ ultimately skimps on the weight of the main idea that’s powering it (not to mention it being the one facet that might allow a hint of the original film’s tone to seep into this new series) in favor of broader comedy and bigger set pieces. It’s not that these aspects are bad, cheapen the experience or even feel lazy, but more that ‘The Next Level’ is very much like vanilla ice cream that could have sprung for sprinkles or syrup, but chose not to not because of cost or fear of diluting the inherent flavor, but more out of convenience. Safe without being boring, fun without being interesting, ‘The Next Level’ is simply fine.