When Jumanji was rebooted with 2017’s Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, the premise flipped the idea of the original book and film. Instead of the game coming to life in the real world, people from the real world went into the game. Since Jumanji was updated to a video game, the real world characters could pick their in-game avatars, and half the fun of Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle was watching Dwayne Johnson do his best impression of a nerdy kid and Jack Black pretend to be a teenage girl. The sequel, Jumanji: The Next Level, wisely goes all-in on the constant impressions of the original with great success. Jumanji: The Next Level naturally tries to double up what worked in the original: bigger comedy, crazier action, and more characters. This is one of the few sequels where bigger is actually better.
While Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle was about finding friends in high school, Jumanji: The Next Level is about staying connected with those friends in college. Spencer (Alex Wolff) is now in New York for college, but missing the confidence that playing as Dr. Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson) gave him in Jumanji. He’s been avoiding his former girlfriend, Martha (Morgan Turner), and he’s nervous about meeting up with her, and his friends Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain) and Bethany (Madison Iseman) during Christmas break. To get back some of that courage, Spencer goes back into the game.
The only problem is that at the end of Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, the foursome broke the console that sucked them in, so players no longer get to pick their players. Martha goes back as Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan), but Fridge is now Professor Shelly Oberson (Jack Black), Spencer is nowhere to be found, and Bethany is left back at home. Accidentally sucked into the game this time though is Spencer’s grandfather Eddie (Danny DeVito) and Eddie’s estranged friend and business partner Milo (Danny Glover). Eddie is now Bravestone, while Milo is Mouse (Kevin Hart). The players must try and find Spencer, while the game wants them to steal a jewel from the game’s new villain, Jurgen the Brutal (Game of Thrones’ Rory McCann).
This switch plays off Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle’s greatest strength: famous actors playing against type and doing weird impersonations. The script by the original’s writers Scott Rosenberg, Jeff Pinker, and director Jake Kasdan does boil down to a lot of old man jokes, but through Kasdan’s direction and great timing, this isn’t as irritating as it could be. Johnson’s cranky DeVito is impression is pretty great, but it’s Hart’s dead-on Glover that never fails to be hilarious. In a smart twist, The Next Level has thrown in an in-game gimmick that allows characters to swap avatars. This allows for even more strange impressions, including Awkwafina’s cat burglar avatar doing a brilliant DeVito impression. The inevitable third film could easily just be Awkwafina as DeVito and Hart as Glover.
But for the most part, Rosenberg, Pinker and Kasdan’s script doesn’t deviate much from the original film. The premise is essentially the same, with the exception of the character swapping. Considering these characters are going into a broken console, it’s also sort of strange the film doesn’t do more with the idea that this is a busted game. The Next Level is more of the same, but at least the series is gotten slightly better in pretty much every aspect.
As with Welcome to the Jungle, The Next Level just isn’t that great when it comes to action or the video game mechanics of the story. Kasdan, who has worked on great comedies like Freaks & Geeks and Walk Hard, just doesn’t do well with action. Whenever the series starts following whatever MacGuffin the characters are going after, the film slows significantly. At the very least, the action in this sequel has improved and is far more simplified and direct than the twisty nonsense of the last film.
Jumanji: The Next Level is mostly playing the same game a second time, but at least the film has one-up’d what worked from the last one. The comedy pops much better, the action is clearer, and the premise is consistently refreshed by changing up these characters. Jumanji was fine the first two times around, but with Jumanji: The Next Level, now, they’re playing with power.