I was pleasantly surprised by 2017’s Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle. We didn’t really need a sequel to the 1995 Robin Williams film (and it is a sequel since Welcome to the Jungle acknowledges that Williams’ character, Alan Parrish, had come to Jumanji before), but it worked well enough by taking video game tropes and turning it into a nice story about friendship with some good set pieces. I don’t think anyone expected it to make almost a billion dollars worldwide, especially at the same time there was a new Star Wars movie in theaters, but it did, so another film was inevitable, and here we are with Jumanji: The Next Level. However, this time instead of taking some big creative swings and pushing the video game tropes further, you have Dwayne Johnson and Kevin Hart talking like old men. That’s pretty much it. There’s technically a story and plot beats and some set pieces, but the biggest creative move is that two of the lead actors pretend to be elderly.
Picking up a couple years after the events of Welcome to the Jungle, Spencer (Alex Wolff), Martha (Morgan Turner), Bethany (Madison Iseman), and Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain) are still friends, but Spencer’s freshman year of college isn’t going so well. Looking to reclaim the power he felt when he was in the avatar of Smolder Bravestone (Johnson), Spencer tries to repair the game and gets sucked back in. His friends resolve to rescue him, but since the game is malfunctioning, the avatars get mixed up. Martha is still Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan), but Fridge is now Shelly Oberon (Jack Black), Spencer’s grandpa Eddie (Danny DeVito) is Bravestone, and Eddie’s estranged pal Milo (Danny Glover) is Finbar (Hart). Saddled with two old guys who don’t understand video games, Fridge and Martha must work to save Spencer while Bethany, still outside the game, tries to figure out how to help her friends.
One would think that if Jumanji is on the fritz, that would open a lot of creative opportunities for glitches, debugs, cheats, or other ways to play with video game tropes to throw unexpected challenges at the characters. It would also be a nice metaphor for life not going as you planned it when you think you have things figured out, as is the case with Spencer. But the screenplay chooses to go on another adventure to reclaim another jewel from another forgettable bad guy with the only difference being that Johnson and Hart are pretending to be old guys. For Johnson and Hart, I’m sure this is a lot of fun, and there are some good jokes scattered about, but certainly nothing that can sustain a two-hour movie.
All of the conflicts feel phoned in. Spencer’s need to go back into a game that almost killed him and his friends should loom much larger, but he basically gets off with an apology and it’s not really revisited. There’s a bit more meat on the estrangement between Eddie and Milo, but honestly, I’d much rather just see that as a real movie where DeVito and Glover play two curmudgeons who need to repair their friendship. But Hollywood isn’t interested in making that kind of movie because it doesn’t earn a billion dollars, so instead it’s better to play the conflict with one of the biggest action stars and one of the biggest comedy stars.
The mercenary nature of The Next Level isn’t inherently objectionable since we’re all adults here and we know how studios operate, but it’s the lack of creativity that makes the movie ring so hollow. I get the need to strike while the iron is hot and quickly turn around a sequel, but the lack of care makes The Next Level feel like a chore. “Do the same thing, but two of your characters act elderly now,” is disappointing, and even the addition of Awkwafina, who’s a scene stealer late in the movie, can’t really elevate the overall picture. With The Next Level you frequently feel like you’re going through the motions so that Dwayne Johnson and Kevin Hart can have a good time, get paid, and have a successful franchise.
Some may think it’s silly that I expected anything at all from The Next Level. After all, it’s the third Jumanji movie. But I genuinely enjoyed Welcome to the Jungle and had hoped that the level of creativity and fun director Jake Kasdan brought to that movie would return for the follow-up. Sadly, The Next Level seems like a studio following through an obligation to its shareholders rather than making something the audience would welcome. While there’s a mid-credits scene that hints at an exciting adventure to come, the minds behind the Jumanji franchise need to be far more imaginative if they’re going to press continue.