Looking back on it, I think the biggest reason why I didn’t think all that much of 2017’s Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle was because it didn’t feel much at all of a piece with the 1995 Robin Williams-starring original. Sure, it borrowed the supernatural adventure game concept of both the original film and the 1981 children’s book said film was loosely based on, and the now-videogame featured gesticulations in the direction of metaphorical self-help pop-psychology like the board game of the original did, but that was about it. Joe Johnston’s take on the material was sombre, unconventional even as it tried to emulate Spielbergian child-friendly emotionality, and at times shockingly bleak as it tackled the wide-ranging societal effects of trauma and abandonment. Nostalgia has misguidedly elevated that messy film into a rarefied air amongst a certain generation, but its willingness to operate almost exclusively in wild risk-taking swings holds up. It has a unique identity.
Welcome to the Jungle, like so many franchise reboots/resurrections this decade, was technically a better movie, in the sense that it was a more consistent and straightforwardly enjoyable work that doesn’t confuse or shock at any point, but left nothing to chew over. Nothing that stuck out, nothing that felt particularly unique to its personality; hell, many of the videogame trope lampshades that made up the film’s biggest gags have been done to death over the years from Virtuosity to Edge of Tomorrow. The high-concept body-swap premise gave a pretty decent Jack Black performance but precious little else (other than a weird recurring obsession with penises for a family film), and overall it was just… fine. I laughed every now and again, I continued to be pleasantly thankful for Karen Gillan getting to top-line blockbuster movies, and I swiftly forgot everything about it within a few days because it was 2017 and that year was STACKED with far more interesting movies.
Clearly, however, I must’ve been an outlier since it grossed almost a billion dollars and became Sony/Columbia Pictures’ highest-grossing film of all-time in the US, so two years later we get a sequel. Like many a fast-tracked sequel to a blockbuster nobody thought was going to become as massive as it did, not a whole lot has changed between Jungle and The Next Level. In fact, many of its biggest beats and gags are fundamentally repeats of bits from the last outing, whilst the plot is spurred into life by one character, Spencer (Alex Wolff), regressing back to the beginning of his arc from the first movie. There continues to be precious little done with the comedic potential of parodying videogame tropes, mechanics and clichés, with returning director and co-writer Jake Kasdan (plus co-writers Jeff Pinkner and Scott Rosenberg) instead settling for merely depicting them or having the characters loudly point them out and have that be the entire extent of the bit, nor still is there any sense of danger or peril. And, once again, there are no major standout setpieces, gags or scenes that’ll linger in anybody’s consciousness for more than a couple hours after the screening’s finished. Second verse same as the first – or, since the ’95 version is still canon here meaning I can’t call this one 2manji goddammit, third verse same as the second.
Yet, I found myself enjoying proceedings a fair bit more than I did the last go around. It’s strange, not a whole lot’s changed fundamentally, but I still honestly think The Next Level is the superior entry of the new Jumanji trilogy so far – and, despite how otherwise self-contained the movie is, a mid-credits sequence makes it very clear that Sony has no plans on killing off this particular golden goose any time soon. In some respects, I think this might be down to personal resonance.
Rather than a particularly elaborate remake of The Breakfast Club, our plucky quartet of youngsters – still made up of nebbish introvert Spencer, nebbish girl introvert Martha (Morgan Turner), brash jock-type Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain), and egocentric but deceptively brainy Bethany (Madison Iseman) – are pulled back into the game in a team effort to rescue Spencer, who willingly dove in of his own accord because his college life in New York City hasn’t been going so great. Friendless in the city, feeling inadequate due to the high school friends he’s not been communicating with appearing to have it great on social media, and lacking a direction in life, he’s drawn back to the shattered remains of Jumanji for the hit and power fantasy of embodying Dr. Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson) yet again. The last time he was happy, sure of himself, his most ideal self. Meanwhile, Spencer’s grandfather Eddie (Danny DeVito) and Eddie’s former friend/business partner Milo (Danny Glover) also get pulled into the game to work through the baggage which estranged them for 15 years because I guess Jumanji is basically Silent Hill at this point?
Whatever the case, there’s actual emotional and thematic text and subtext this time around, ones which ended up playing upon my own fears of aging and estrangement as well as other stuff that’s technically a spoiler to bring up. It’s rudimentary, fixated more on the conflict between Eddie and Milo – Eddie having been assigned Bravestone, Milo being saddled with Mouse (Kevin Hart), whilst Martha re-embodies Ruby Roundhouse (Gillan), Fridge is stuck in Shelly’s (Black) hilariously useless body, and Bethany starts out mysteriously being left outside the game – with Spencer’s arc rather minimised, and Next Level shares Jungle’s predilection for completely stopping the character narratives whenever it’s time for extended gaming setpieces (JUST LIKE A REAL VIDEOGAME). But it’s not ineffective. Eddie and Milo’s contentious back-and-forths end up building to two key surprisingly understated revelations that, even when fed through the silly distancing effect of a not-used-nearly-enough body hot-swap concept, are allowed to be sincerely moving.
Perhaps why Spencer’s arc is given the relative short-shrift comes from the inherent hypocrisy of a franchise trading alternately on nostalgia and brand recognition (perhaps unintentionally) making one of its central subtextual undercurrents this time be about how reckless nostalgia for better days rather than enjoying and making something new of the present is toxic and endangers those around you. Similarly, whilst Next Level still has nothing openly to say about videogames and their mechanics, the tangible stretching for ideas when it comes to scenarios for our cast to tackle and the relative incoherence of the results makes for a pretty funny subtextual send-up of rushed videogame sequel design. From the threadbare plot trying and failing to make it personal in an effort to artificially raise the stakes (the new in-universe big bad murdered Bravestone’s parents), to the blatant reuse of assets from the previous instalment, to how a series synonymous with the jungle somehow manages to find itself taking detours to Mad Max-reminiscent desert settlements and a finale based around scaling a Mongolian-era ice castle plus a fistfight on a zeppelin, the clear fact that Jumanji’s creative team are struggling for ideas inadvertently makes for a recurringly funny bit about crunched-out glitch-ridden videogame developers struggling to justify their own sequel. (It helps that the much-improved production design rides just the right line between intentionally and unintentionally disjointed.)
I recognise all of this scans like backhanded compliments or damning with faint praise. “Everybody, a BLOCKBUSTER MOVIE bothered to have STUFF GOING ON IN IT that was BARE-MINIMUM OF INTERESTING!” And… yeah, frankly, it kind of is. 2019’s been a rather miserable year for movies on the whole and big movies especially, what do you want from me? But I did have actual fun with The Next Level. The gags may not be particularly inspired, but they’re effectively delivered and Kasdan’s Walk Hard experience leads to a greater ratio of well-executed visual gags than one normally gets from movies like this. Even if it requires stopping the character narratives to do so and is still lacking in any semblance of danger – every death is played off for a joke this time, which should tell you how little the film cares about its own stakes – the gaming setpieces are good fun, with a criss-cross bridge chase being the highlight. Meanwhile, Hart and series newcomer Awkwafina (who has just had one hell of an 18 months) are the MVPs this time around, both nailing dead-on physical and vocal impressions of multiple characters which thankfully never stop being funny. Contrast Hart’s effortless hysterical channelling of Glover with Johnson’s strained hit-or-miss attempt at DeVito for a clear example of how difficult this is.
So, where does that leave us, then? Objectively, we’ve run in place for almost two hours and accomplished much the same goals. The Next Level, just like its immediate predecessor, is a frothy and agreeably fun timewaster designed to be swiftly forgotten about soon after viewing. Despite the occasional bells and whistles and Fridge-Shelly’s protestations that “this is a whole new thing,” it really amounts to the exact same movie as Welcome to the Jungle except with a different coat of fast-peeling paint. Nothing’s particularly changed, the filmmaking hasn’t massively improved aside from a showier and fittingly janky production design, the plot and mechanics are now riddled with ill-justified holes – you may be wondering why Bethany was initially rejected by the game’s clutches, and you will have to keep on wondering cos the film never bothers to explain why nor how she later gets in anyway – and what depth is here frankly seems unintentional and is really only the bare minimum to get the movie across the finish line.
Yet, I had proper fun, more so than last time. Whether it be due to the thematic undercurrents playing off my baggage just enough to gain a little genuine sentiment, or lowered expectations as a result of a really dire and forgettable year for movies at large, or reoriented expectations for what a Jumanji movie should feel like – the shift from Jumanji to Jungle was pretty radical, whilst Next Level roots itself into Jungle’s comfort zone and adamantly refuses to budge – I exited the cinema properly pleased. Whilst I can’t exactly enthusiastically recommend Next Level to anybody, since those who didn’t enjoy Jungle likely won’t find anything radically different here whilst those who did enjoy Jungle are basically paying a minimum of £10 to watch the same movie they probably already own again, I can’t deny that increased enjoyment on my end. Give it up for systematic lowering of expectations for basic competency, I guess?[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F6QaLsw8EWY&w=560&h=315]
Jumanji: The Next Level is now playing in cinemas nationwide.