Director: Jake Kasdan
Stars: Karen Gillan, Danny DeVito, Awkwafina
When, in combination, The Greatest Showman and Jumanji: Welcome To The Jungle took more money for Sony than the last Bond film, it seemed inevitable that at least one of them would be franchised as quickly as possible. Jumanji was the obvious choice. After all, it was already a belated sequel and, in its new video-game-style format, was tailor made for another do-over. Thus, two short years later, The Next Level is with us.
It helped that Welcome To The Jungle deserved its success. Against all probability, it was a lot of fun, in the main down to some funny writing and an ensemble cast that carried a lot of charisma. Jack Black – lets be honest, close to washed-up – once more became a beloved sensation as ‘Bethany’. The film’s central conceit that a bunch of teen characters are ported into game avatars played by a pack of A-listers allowed for some fun against-type hi-jinx, especially from Dwayne Johnson and the aforementioned Black.
It also brought up the possibility of character arcs tended to by multiple actors; something quite daunting to sell. In the ‘real’ world, Spencer is nervous, gangly Alex Wolff; in ‘Jumanji’ he is Johnson’s confident brick shithouse. Yet there’s continuity in the performances that’s quite impressive. It sort of made the whole thing.
The Next Level seems keen to play on this – for want of a better term – gimmick, and spends a great deal of its time swapping characters. Actors are charged with portraying multiple different personalities, and mimicking those performed by others so as to preserve continuity. This is, genuinely, some next level shit.
Despite having smashed the console, our original gang are drawn back to the game which Spencer has decided to rejuvenate so he can hide from his friends. He misses the confidence that came from his game persona Dr. Bravestone (Johnson). The others reluctantly follow him in so as to get him out again, but the busted game throws a few spanners in the works. Quite by accident, Spencer’s not-all-there grandfather Eddie (Danny DeVito) and his doddering friend Milo (Danny Glover) are pulled in with them, while Bethany (Madison Iseman) is left out in the cold.
To mix things up, everyone bar Martha (Morgan Turner) ends up in the body of a different character. Cue a whole new set of variations on the fish-out-of-water routine, mainly milked for the old-guy-in-a-young-body bit.
That Martha belongs so completely with the character of Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan) is a smart continuation of where we left her. The first film’s overarching theme for all its characters was overcoming your own inadequacies (real or merely perceived). Ruby empowered Martha. Pleasingly, Martha hasn’t unlearned those things in the meantime. The two are now as one.
You have to add to the mix with sequels. Them’s the rules. So kudos to the creative team here for picking Awkwafina, currently on a seemingly-endless winning streak. Sadly, she’s not given nearly as much to do here as one might hope. With the addition of Colin Hanks/Nick Jonas returning as Alex and a talking horse (you’ll see) the cast of heroes starts growing expansive. With this aspect getting unruly, its no surprise that the ‘plot’ of The Next Level is almost non-existent. There’s a that’ll-do quest to get a gem from an under-utilised Rory McCann, but that’s all an excuse to bound between set pieces. And that’s fine.
The Next Level leans into action movie thrills a little harder than its predecessor, and these work best when deconstructing the weird conventions of adventure video games. The best of these is a well choreographed piss-take of floating platform puzzles, with mandrills thrown into the mix because, hey, this is Jumanji. A few character arcs are squeezed in to make it all feel like it meant something, and the rest of the time is spent finding unique ways for the many characters to lose their lives imaginatively, as though someone crossbred Indiana Jones with Final Destination.
There’s a nagging sense that a lot of this is box-ticking, even by-the-numbers sequel fare, but its a spirited and overall breezy iteration all the same. Welcome To The Jungle‘s director Jake Kasdan takes the reigns again, so there’s a sense of consistency, and fun levels are more-or-less on a par. As previously, the film stumbles out of the gate getting itself set up, but once our familiar heroes are beamed inside their (un)familiar bodies, that infectious silliness takes over.
With two down, a third is inevitable, and a post-credits scene all but guarantees this. And, as Jumanji: Welcome To The Jungle was such a durable crowd pleaser, there’s no reason to think that The Next Level won’t bankroll the capper to a no-stakes trilogy of happy buffoonery. A little more invention next time would be welcome, but as of now this is turning into a very likable set of movies and Karen Gillan is shining as its defacto lead.
Continue? Yes, please.