Sony’s body-swapping adventure returned in 2019 for another nostalgic romp through the untamed frontier. Jumanji: The Next Level, the second Jumanji movie in as many years and the fourth since 1995, added Awkwafina, Danny DeVito, and Danny Glover, but the rest of the nostalgic franchise remains frozen in stasis.
Spencer (Alex Wolff) is home from college monitoring his bold, headstrong grandfather, Eddie (DeVito), as he recovers from hip surgery. Reminiscing on memories from Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, Spencer decides to retrieve the broken Jumanji gaming console to reconnect with his girlfriend, Martha (Morgan Turner), and their friends, Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain) and Bethany (Madison Iseman).
The next day, Milo (Glover), Eddie’s estranged business partner, visits him to make amends. Martha, Fridge, and Bethany arrive sooner after, having not heard from Spencer. The five discover the functioning Jumanji console in Spencer’s basement, and are predictably sucked into the machine. Given three lives each, the six can either survive long enough to save Jumanji or die in real life.
Spencer’s inspired to find the console so he can relive his glory days in Jumanji as Dr. Xander Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson). This signals a brief yet fleeting theme of body dysmorphia. To Spencer’s chagrin, the malfunctioning console thrusts players into a pre-selected role. Instead of Bravestone’s machismo and The Rock’s bountiful biceps, he inherits Awkwafina’s Ming Fleetfoot, a cat burglar with a severe pollen allergy.
The character swaps continue: Eddie becomes Bravestone (leading to The Rock’s dubious DeVito impression), Milo assumes control of Mouse (Kevin Hart), and Bethany turns into a horse. Recent entries in the Jumanji series feasted on this schtick to diminishing returns. Mercifully, a teased third installment seems to drop the body-swap convention, but is it Jumanji without The Rock, Hart, Jack Black, and Karen Gillan?
Welcome to the Jungle writers Scott Rosenberg and Jeff Pinkner returned to pen the sequel script, joined by director Jake Kasdan. A weather-controlling jewel replaces Welcome to the Jungle’s animal-controlling jewel as the MacGuffin of choice. Game of Thrones fans will recognize The Hound actor Rory McCann as Jurgen the Brutal, the film’s wickedly evil antagonist. McCann has more room to maneuver than Bobby Cannavale did in the previous movie, but all character development, humor, and depth still belongs to the heroes.
With added jokes about senility, a new arctic setting, and a fresh, smile-inducing set-piece featuring dune buggies and CGI ostriches, The Next Level is nominally different than its predecessor. Without major changes to the inevitable sequel, Jumanji is stuck in the mud. But the simple premise is an inoffensive and, at times, enjoyable way to escape reality.