The hybrid reboot/sequel that was 2017’s Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle was a mammoth success that I suspect not even Sony was anticipating. Sure, they threw considerable weight behind the project but in the wake of Star Wars: the Last Jedi‘s release, a near billion dollar haul worldwide was an unprecedented outcome, to say the least.
A follow-up was inevitable, and to the credit of co-writer/director Jake Kasdan (fellow Welcome to the Jungle scribes Jeff Pinkner and Scott Rosenberg similarly returning to their duties) The Next Level manages to avoid serious franchise fatigue by adopting just enough freshness within the expected formula to be deemed a worthy adventure on its own accord.
Welcome to the Jungle‘s neat narrative hook of placing its lead characters inside the game, as opposed to the original film bringing the boardgame’s components into the real world, was a welcome novelty that made the most of its appealing cast and their willingness to play against type through the avatars they ultimately embodied. The shy, awkward teen (Alex Wolf‘s Spencer) was transformed into the hulking Dr. Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson); the tall, muscular footballer (Ser’Darius Blain‘s Fridge) now a minuscule zoologist (Kevin Hart‘s Mouse Finbar); the vapid popular girl (Madison Iseman‘s Bethany) horrified to become Jack Black‘s portly Professor; and the cynical outsider (Morgan Turner‘s Martha) now a self-assured sexpot schooled in the art of combat (Karen Gillan‘s Ruby Roundhouse).
It was a winning formula supported by a chemistry-heavy cast, and it makes complete sense that The Next Level would want to not only emulate this but improve it on where they could. Given that the teen quartet of Spencer, Fridge, Bethany and Martha had overcome their individual differences and destroyed the game so as to never be in virtual peril again, a reason behind their eventual re-entry to the world of Jumanji had to feel somewhat organic, and due to Spencer feeling distant from his fellow peers and being reminded that it was when he was encapsulated inside the fearless Bravestone that he truly felt strong and assured, his character is logically the most sound to want to return to an existence that is all about living out a fantasy.
But it would be a little too easy for each character to return to the game (however unwillingly) and be assigned the same avatars as before, and thanks to a glitch that voids each of them to choose their players, Fridge, Martha and Bethany arrive back in Jumanji under drastically different circumstances. Adding flames to the fire, Spencer’s cranky grandfather Eddie (a delightfully stubborn Danny DeVito) and his long-time business partner/former bestie Milo (Danny Glover) have also inadvertently been summoned into the game, allowing The Next Level to earn plenty of mileage out of Johnson (still as hulking as ever) and Hart respectively channeling DeVito and Glover; Hart is especially good adhering to Glover’s slow speech pattern.
Much like Welcome to the Jungle, The Next Level operates on the assumption that each actor playing against their usual persona will provide enough entertainment within a story that doesn’t shake-up the formula, and it’s correct in thinking so. However, the script makes sure to not entirely rest on its laurels by throwing in a series of visually spectacular action sequences (there’s one involving operative bridges and a swarm of baboons that is genuinely one of the more exhilarating set-pieces put to screen this year) as well as a story additive that allows characters to switch personalities; this proves particularly amusing when Awkwafina enters the frame as crafty burglar Ming Fleetfoot and she too is able to temporarily channel DeVito in a manner that is almost too on-the-nose.
Feeling like less of a risk project and more a self-assured entry in a thriving franchise, The Next Level squeezes out all the potential it can out of its two-film premise, leaving itself wide-open for another round that will surely be announced mere weeks after this makes the serious coin I can only assume Sony is banking on. And if said sequel comes to fruition, the final chapter in the series we never knew we needed should provide the winning quartet of Johnson, Hart, Black and Gillan to indulge their characters in a fresh manner whilst gloriously winking to the original Robin Williams feature in the process.
THREE AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Jumanji: The Next Level is screening in Australian theatres from December 26th 2019