This time around, our teenaged heroes – geeky Spencer (Alex Wolff), athlete Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain), now-do-gooder Bethany (Madison Iseman) and now-confident Martha (Morgan Turner) – are all coming home from college for Christmas break and planning to meet up. But Spencer’s feeling down and defeated, and finds himself sucked back into the video game after he decides to haul the smashed-to-death-last-time-we-saw-it game console and Jumanji cartridge out from storage. He wants another taste of what it’s like being his avatar, Dr. Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson).
Soon, the remaining pals very reluctantly follow suit to rescue their friend, with Spencer’s Grandpa Eddie (Danny DeVito) and Eddie’s former best friend Milo (Danny Glover) accidentally tagging along. But a smashed game console means stuff isn’t quite working properly, and only Martha returns to her former avatar, ass-kicker Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan). Fridge is now in the body of middle-aged cartographer Dr. Shelley Oberon (Jack Black); Eddie becomes a befuddled Brooklyn-accented Smolder; and Milo finds himself spouting animal-kingdom factoids as zoologist Mouse Finbar (Kevin Hart). Spencer and Bethany seem to be MIA, the characters are given a brand new quest to thwart a brand new foe: towering barbarian-y Jurgen the Brutal (Games of Thrones’ Rory McCann).
Adopting an “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” attitude, the filmmakers send our players through a familiar-feeling series of perilous adventures – with only three lives each to spare, they once again have to finish various “levels” of the game and recover a precious jewel in order to get themselves out of Jumanji. Having the film’s arc and the players’ mission essentially duplicate Welcome to the Jungle made some of the proceedings feel a bit stale and repetitive (I’m looking at you, ostrich chase andmandrill chase) – I kept waiting for something totally new and unexpected, such as one of the characters figuring out how to win bonus lives or earn special skills by completing a task or some such. You know, just like a player would in a typical video game. But, alas, not so much, and the film leans heavily on “more of the same.”
Where Next Level shines, though, is with its terrific cast – especially when the characters figure out how to intentionally swap avatars. Johnson and Hart (who’s hysterical when mimicking Glover’s molasses-like drawl) continue to be the big screen’s most hilarious duo, and both Black and Gillan turn in wonderful performances. DeVito, Glover and Awkwafina (as a new character in the game) are solid additions, and both Nick Jonas and Colin Hanks return to reprise their roles from the previous film. The entire group boasts winning chemistry, and whatever the film might lack in originality it more than makes up for in personality.
Like Welcome to the Jungle, Next Level will make for fun family viewing over the holidays. Though it isn’t quite as great as the previous film, it’s lively and colorful, and drops in a clever nod to the 1995 original in its final moments. Best of all, underneath the spectacle beats (once again) a warn, fuzzy heart and a poignant story about friendship.
[Tip: don’t leave the theater too early, as there’s a bonus scene shortly after the credits start that teases another sequel to come.]