Jumanji: The Next Level restarts the series and sputters to game over

Jumanji: The Next Level has much of what made the first film so fun, but the aimless plotline and penchant for mimicry wears thin fast.

When Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle released in theaters two years ago, it was a vibrantly fun new entry into the author Chris Van Allsburg’s world that paid loving tribute to the 1995 movie starring Robin Williams and was an entirely separate entity. But when it came time to create something 100 percent divorced from the nostalgia, as is the case with Jumanji: The Next Level, it’s harder for lightning to strike twice. A simple tale of living life to the fullest is dug up and reconstituted with a healthy layer of actors impersonating actors with SNL-level quality (and that’s not necessarily a compliment).

Following the teenagers, now college students, of the previous film, Spencer (Alex Wolff) is returning to his New Hampshire home for the holidays. But Spencer isn’t happy with his life in New York where he’s still the same neurotic kid he was in high school. Upon returning home, where he’s stuck sharing a room with his bitter grandpa, Eddie (Danny DeVito), Spencer discovers the old Jumanji video game and is convinced that returning to the body of the intimidating Dr. Bravestone will set things right.

The nostalgic return to the past has been heavily mined territory this year alone, so the minute Spencer starts to think returning to the frightening world of Jumanji would be beneficial, the audience has to start suspending disbelief. This is a kid who can barely stack toothpaste without taking a puff on his inhaler but, sure, returning to a world of venomous snakes and murderous baddies will be awesome.

Wolff and the teenage cast are there as pure exposition. Once Spencer is drawn into Jumanji, they all decide to re-enter the game as well bringing along — for reasons never explained short of narrative convenience —  Grandpa Eddie and his estranged, former best friend Milo (Danny Glover).

Once the adult cast takes over, it’s presumed the movie will kick into high gear, but this script feels incredibly weak compared to the first. For starters, it’s reliant on letting the adult cast act like both their younger counterparts and established performers like DeVito and Glover. So it isn’t enough to watch Dwayne Johnson, the audience also watches Johnson impersonate Danny DeVito, right down to the voice. The fact that there are two different Danny DeVito impersonations in this movie says a lot. Add to that body-switching at several points and it’s like you’re watching an improv session where the actors are showing the impressions they can do.

The emphasis on impressions comes at the expense of the story, which is already hobbled by the addition of new characters that require the older characters to explain the plot. The characters playing DeVito and Glover may be funny, but after hearing their vocal changes and their constant questioning of what’s happening, it shows how little plot there is to mine in an over two-hour movie. It’s as if the screenwriters thought the film would connect with anyone who’s tried to teach their grandparents how to use the TV remote.

The cast is certainly eager to bring the laughs, but the humor is so one-note. Dwayne Johnson, the best part of the original film, does little more than do his best Danny DeVito, New York accent and hit people. Later, when he’s once again inhabited by Spencer, the character could come alive but he’s nothing more than the straight man. Karen Gillan takes point for much of the plot as the avatar of Martha (played by Morgan Turner as a kid) and is hilarious, whether she’s playing a fighter or acting like a teenage boy. The same can be said for Jack Black.

The weakest of the link is newcomer Awkwafina, woefully underused as a cat burglar but generally stuck doing another Danny DeVito impression. Bad guy Rory McCann is interesting as video game villain Jurgan the Brutal but he’s purely there to provide muscle and illustrate how much fun the screenwriters had watching Game of Thrones.

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If you like your movies filled with jokes about old people not understanding video games and saying, “What?” a lot, then Jumanji: The Next Level is for you. The cast has fun, but there’s no life left in this storyline.

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