No sense putting the knock on this sequel to 2017’s Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, which blew the cobwebs off the 1995 version starring Robin Williams. The reboot cast, again headed by Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Karen Gillan and the devilish Jack Black, are still fun company — you could do way worse if you’re looking for a comic blast for the holidays. The attitude of The Next Level, spearheaded by returning director Jake Kasdan and screenwriters Jeff Pinkner and Scott Rosenberg, is that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
Remember last time when four teens — Spencer (Alex Wolff), his shy girlfriend Martha (Morgan Turner), football hero Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain) and digital princess Bethany (Madison Iseman) — nearly got themselves killed? They’d entered the Jumanji video game and wound up in the bodies of adult avatars, such as muscled explorer Dr. Smolder Bravestone (Johnson), zoologist Franklin “Moose” Finbar (Hart), Professor Shelly Oberon (Black) and bare-midriff commando Ruby Roundhouse (Gillan). It was a hoot seeing nerdy Spencer in the body of Johnson, and Black purring like a teenage girl.
For Round Two, the filmmakers play mix-and-match with the avatars, giving nearly everyone a chance to try on a different alter ego. Plus, the game zaps in two senior citizens: Danny De Vito as Spencer’s grouchy grandpop Eddie and Danny Glover as Eddie’s estranged business partner Milo. Jumanji: The Next Level often feels like it needs a instruction manual. But there are major comedy benefits, such as hearing Johnson imitating the voice of De Vito and fast-talking Hart slowing it down to a crawl to mimic one-word-at-a-time Glover. No one stays in one avatar for long, and no complaints about the always-welcome Awkwafina showing up as a cat burglar named Ming. She’s a pleasure.
You’ll have to stay on your toes to follow the plot, which is really not worth the effort — something about the teens rescuing the depressive Spencer who wanted another shot at being Bravestone, or something. What matters are the laughs and the FX, including a herd of pissed-off ostriches trying to chase the gang off a cliff and the film’s journey into the desert and up into snowy mountain peaks. It’s all in service of a theme that bears repeating, especially for young audiences, about the need to see the core of who people are through the masks they may be wearing. The finale pivots on the presence of Game of Thrones‘ Rory McCann, bellowing like thunder as a bearded villain named Jurgen the Brutal, who has a jewel that might get our heroes out of Jumanji, at least until the next sequel, which is not such a bad idea as long as this rowdy, ramshackle enterprise keeps its tongue firmly in cheek.