Jumanji: The Next Level
Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (2017) proved to be the surprise hit of the 2017 winter season; making a boatload at the box office while competing with a Star Wars flick. It thus seemed inevitable that this newly rebooted franchise would continue making entries, and thus we have Jumanji: The Next Level (2019).
Jumanji: The Next Level sees our young characters outside of high school and in their first semesters of college. Spencer (Alex Wolff) is having a tough time adapting to university life in the city and being apart from the friends he made in the previous film. Thus when he returns home for winter break, he seeks out to re-enter the Jumanji game where he felt in control and comfortable. However, given that the only way to escape the game is to beat it, when his friends find out, they all jump back into the game to help him. As fate would have it, however, Spencer’s grandfather (Danny DeVito) and his old friend (Danny Glover) are near enough to be sucked into the game as well. Thus a funny body-switching situation happens with the old men in avatar bodies played by Dwayne Johnson and Kevin Hart; the other video game characters played by Karen Gillian, Jack Black, and Nick Jonas also return.
Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle proved to not capture the same wonderous magic and absurdity as the Robin Williams’ Jumanji (1995), however, it was able to craft its own comedic/action space that led to an enjoyable time. The Next Level doesn’t seek to divert much from Welcome to the Jungle’s formula, and thus a rather overly familiar and predictable plot ensues. The video game quest is even more disinteresting than the bland one seen in Welcome to the Jungle, and the stakes seem much lower, with no one doubting at any point the dangers the characters are facing. There is a refreshing amount of humor thanks to the “old men in young bodies” gimmick, and both Johnson and Hart seem to have a great time playing with this twist.
However, one gimmick isn’t enough to warrant a sequel, and thus the film seeks to overstuff its plot with more characters. Awkwafina is added as the awfully racially insensitive avatar Ming who is a cat burglar, and the film also brings the unnecessary return of Nick Jonas who has absolutely no effect on the plot and seemed more a marketing push for his fans than a necessity to carry his character’s arc. Apart from these seeming obvious flaws, The Next Level doesn’t seek to rectify the mistakes of its past film. The incredibly objectifying costume that Karen Gillian was forced to wear in Welcome to the Jungle makes its return here; the excuses of it being a commentary on the sexist dressing of female video game characters seems too pathetic to stand up a second time. Gillian is given the chance of a costume change late in the film, but for the majority of the narrative the camera seems to want to show her torso more than her actual acting in any of her scenes. The character-switches in the story also bring about an uncomfortable portrayal by Jack Black of the character Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain), who is a young black man. Black seems to be more focused on getting a stereotypical voice right instead of inhabiting the actual character, which leads to some cringey moments whenever he speaks.
Finally the film seemed to be focused on a particular message of facing real-life’s problems and not hiding away in a video game or screen. However, while this message seems to hit home in some characters, writer/director Jake Kasdan contradicts himself in a finale where he supports the denial that a video game can bring to the pains of life for other characters. This shouldn’t be the message The Next Level should send to viewers: that if life gets to hard bury your head in the sand, but the film seems unaware that it is refuting itself.
There are plenty of fun action sequences that do their job at keeping audiences entertained, and while the Johnson and Hart characters’ gimmick is a fun one, it gets dragged on too long and allows the other unchanged and worsened aspects of the film to come forth. There seems to be an insensitive regard to age, race, and gender when it comes to Kasdan’s approach, and it drags down an otherwise unimpressive blockbuster.