Jumanji: The Next Level – 2019

Director Jake Kasdan
Screenplay Kasdan, Jeff Pinker, Scott Rosenberg
Starring Dwayne Johnson, Jack Black, Kevin Hart, Karen Gillan, Nick Jonas, Awkwafina, Alex Wolff, Morgan Turner, Ser’Darius Blain, Madison Iseman, Danny Glover, Danny DeVito, Colin Hanks, Rory McCann

The first sequel / reboot of Jumanji took the viewing public by surprise and made a ton of dough. Making it a version of the Breakfast Club inside of a video game augmented by great character acting is a stroke of genius that offset the generic concept of three lives and you’re out. To just do the same with a new adventure would have sucked, but Kasdan and company avoided this with a new clever conceit. Adding DeVito as Eddie, the grandfather of Spencer (Wolff) while including his old, estranged friend Milo (Glover) opened the palette of potential characters for Johnson, Hart, Black and newcomer to the Jumanji world Awkwafina to inhabit. The result is more than enough to offset the sameness of the adventure.

The story starts with all of the four from the first movie planning on getting back together on a break from college. Three of them are eager, Spencer less so. After spending a disappointing evening with his mother and Eddie, he decides to take the game out of hiding and he disappears. The next morning Eddie, recovering from surgery, is visited by Milo and they answer the door to Martha, Fridge and Bethany (Turner, Blain and Isman).

Soon enough, the three friends realize where Spencer has gone and two of them are sucked back into the game along with Eddie and Milo. The result is the same foursome as before, only not everybody is the same person behind the character. This provides the grist of the film, and there is plenty here to make into a story that entertains for reasons of acting as much, if not more than the action. The real value here is more than writing. Johnson, Hart and Black really get into their characters, no matter which one they are in the moment. The process of rediscovery is a wealth of comedy.

The plot matters less than the first one. The Hound from Game of Thrones (McCann) stole something and made the world less fun. They have to go where he’s holding it, steal the MacGuffin and make everything better. The journey brings them to a new character Ming Fleetfoot (Awkwafina) who is not an NPC. She gives the film another kick in the second act to help carry through to the conclusion.

The effects, so horrible as to be off-putting in Robin Williams’ original, have improved with the subsequent sequels. There is nothing here that is distractingly bad, and the sequence on the geometrical bridges is a highlight.

The best thing about the film is the obvious chemistry with the comically skilled cast. They really enjoy working together and it shows. The musical chairs of persons behind the player characters give everyone a place to go, except for Gillian, who is integral as an anchor a reality that the new players just can’t grasp. Hart and Johnson have enough of Glover and DeVito’s charm, they are a delight to watch.

This is perhaps the first trilogy in my memory where each of the sequels has improved on the previous entry. This could be even bigger than either of those films, and it deserves more chances to entertain.

(***1/2 out of *****)

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