If there’s one thing the “Jumanji” franchise has taught us, it is that the game, like life itself, finds a way.
You can bury it on a beach or crush it with a bowling ball, but the game will bounce back. Because how else can you have another sequel?
“The Next Level” is the third installment in the “Jumanji” franchise and, if it isn’t the best in the series, it shows that there is still a surprising amount of life in the central comic premise. There’s a reason that “The Next Level” stayed in my six-screen small-town theater for well over two months: It is an action comedy that skimps on neither action nor comedy and even finds room for a little heart. It’s not great art, but it’s quite a bit more funny, smart and graceful than many of the cynical cash grabs the studios are releasing these days.
For series neophytes, “The Next Level” is a sequel to 2017’s “Welcome to the Jungle”, which was itself a pseudo-sequel to 1995’s “Jumanji,” which was itself an adaptation of a Chris Van Allsburg picture book for kids. Hilariously, Van Allsburg still gets a “based on” story credit for “The Next Level” even though there is really nothing left of the book outside of the title at this point.
The comic motor of both “The Next Level” and “Welcome to the Jungle” is the classic “Freaky Friday” body-swap trope, as real-life gamers are sucked into the “Jumanji” video game and adjust to life in their game characters’ bodies.
Consider, for example, the comic possibilities when crotchety Grandpa Eddie (the great Danny DeVito) is transformed into macho adventurer Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson).
“My joints feel like butter!” he says while acclimating to his new body.
And, yes, Johnson knocks his DeVito impression out of the park.
Eddie’s friend Milo (the invaluable Danny Glover) is transformed into zoologist Moose Finbar (Kevin Hart).
Hart nails Glover’s deliberate slow-paced line delivery style, which is always good for a few laughs.
“Did I just kill Eddie by talking too slow?”
High school jock Fridge (Ser’Darius Blaine) is transformed into the overweight Professor Shelley Oberon (Jack Black) much to his dismay.
“At least last time I was still black!”
Black, Hart and Johnson steal this thing and make the screenplay by Jake Kasdan, Jeff Pinkner and Scott Rosenberg sing. The interplay between Johnson and Hart is especially strong.
“My eyes are a different color,” Johnson-as-DeVito says.
“All of you is a different color,” Hart-as-Glover replies.
So, yeah, it’s a one-joke movie, but at least the one joke is consistently funny and delivered by a cast of comedic ringers. The CGI set-pieces, which mimic video game platforming challenges, are also pretty impressive.
At over two hours, the film lags noticeably- especially in the back-half as writer/director Kasdan starts repeating jokes and scenes from “Welcome to the Jungle.”
As in “Welcome to the Jungle,” the film takes way too long (over 20 minutes) to get to the good stuff in the video game- a problem exacerbated by the fact that the teenage leads aren’t particularly interesting or talented. Not even the considerable charisma of DeVito and Glover can keep those early scenes afloat.
As in “Welcome to the Jungle”, the plot is somehow both overstuffed and underdeveloped, and the bad guy (Rory McCann of “Game of Thrones”) is unutterably bland. Karen Gillan, the only performer repeating her “Welcome to the Jungle” schtick, simply doesn’t have a lot of range compared to her class clown co-stars.
But despite its flaws, “Jumanji: The Next Level” (rated PG-13 for adventure action, suggestive content and some language) is entertaining and funny enough, and you’ll likely leave with at least a small smirk on your face. And if the “Jumanji” game can’t be destroyed, it’s nice that it will live on in films as crowd-pleasingly charming as this one.
About the author
Stephen Dow is an award-winning journalist with a passion for film – not just consuming it, but thoughtfully and actively engaging with it. He believes that these modern myths have a lot to tell us about our world and ourselves. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.