Courtesy of Sony
The reboot that was “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” proved to be quite the sleeper hit when released two years ago in the wake of “Star Wars: The Last Jedi.” The film went on to become Sony’s highest grossing domestic earner to date and stayed in theaters for a massive 53 weeks. Naturally, another follow-up was all but inevitable, and to its credit the Jake Kasden directed sequel “Jumanji: The Next Level” could have suffered from franchise fatigue. Considering I was a champion of “Welcome to the Jungle” my expectations were muted and though it doesn’t reach the heights of the previous entries, “The Next Level” has enough fresh and inventive material to make this a decent game worth playing.
“Jungle” put a fresh spin on the Jumanji narrative by sucking a group of teenagers into a virtual reality game - in lieu of tired board game mechanics - and stuck them in avatars not like themselves. For example, the squirrely kid with asthma was housed inside the hulking Dwayne Johnson; the tall and muscular football player was now a short and fragile Kevin Hart, and the gorgeous popular girl looked in the mirror to see herself as a chubby Jack Black. Those elements - and remarkable chemistry - proved a winning formula, and “The Next Level” attempts to build on that foundation by throwing heavyweights Danny DeVito and Danny Glover into the ring.
DeVito plays Eddie the former owner of a world renowned restaurant and ailing grandfather to lowly Spencer (Alex Wolff) whose home for the holidays and is desperately trying to cope with a recent breakup. In his heyday, Eddie was the talk of the town with his famous recipes alongside fellow restaurant partner Milo (Glover) who shows up out of the blue to try and make amends for past grievances only for the two to find themselves inadvertently thrusted into the world of Jumanji. Per usual, everyone gets assigned an avatar and this time the game finds Eddie linked with Johnson and Glover with Hart. So the game is the same - which sees the heroes trying to thwart some unruly bad guy hellbent on world domination - but at least Johnson and Hart portraying their elders is a nice shakeup. Oh and the big bulky football player Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain) is now Jack Black, and the agile Karen Gilliam steps back into the fray with newly appointed nunchuck skills.
There’s some wild ostriches and even wilder baboons that serve as the focal point for some key action sequences, but none of them ever live up to the hippo stampede or ninja takedown from “Jungle” and at times “The Next Level” seems scarce for material. Awkwafina is the fellow new blood alongside DeVito and Glover and she manages to get some mileage out a script that seems glued together to cash in on success at the last minute. Still, as far as sequels go, “The Next Level” isn’t a predictably bad entry into the franchise as Hart and Johnson continue to make the case that, with the right ensemble, properties and brands like this can successfully be rebooted. Then again, It’s all fun and games until a studio loses money.