By Doug Laman
Special to the Anna-Melissa Tribune
Continuing a short time after “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle,” the four teenagers who previously got sucked into the Jumanji video game - Spencer (Alex Wolff), Martha (Morgan Turner), “Fridge” (Ser’Darius Blain) and Bethany (Maidson Iseman) - have gone their separate ways and become adults. They still keep in touch, though Spencer has become distant in recent months. The challenges of being a neurotic college student make him yearn for the time he was in a video game as a figure who looks like Dwayne Johnson. Stuck with his grandfather, Eddie Gilpin (Danny DeVito), over winter break, Spencer fiddles around with the Jumanji video game cartridge and ends up getting sucked back into the world of Jumanji.
Shortly thereafter, Martha, Bethany and “Fridge” go into the game to rescue their pal, though Eddie and his former friend Milo Walker (Danny Glover) have also gotten sucked into the game. This means everyone, save for Martha, is now stuck in the bodies of different video game avatars (played by Johnson, Kevin Hart, Karen Gillan and Jack Black) than last time. This is all a pretty lengthy setup for a premise that ends up hinging heavily on a lot of gags about Hart (now controlled by Walker) speaking slowly and Johnson (now controlled by Gilpin) reveling in his smooth-as-butter hips.
Simple comedic pleasures like those gags are the stock and trade of these two new “Jumanji” movies. The last movie managed to go to some nicely unexpected places with such pleasures. This go-around mostly settles for what you’d expect. That’s fine whenever gags like Johnson doing a brash DeVito impression are playing out onscreen. Between his work in the “Jumanji” movies and his excellent turn in “Pain & Gain,” Johnson is turning out to be an actor who actually does his best work as an actor playing against his default onscreen persona as a macho, reliable hero. Johnson’s a hoot channeling the spirit of DeVito, even if it is disappointing that he never offers anybody an egg for these trying times.
The other standout in the cast is Awkwafina playing a brand new video game avatar character. “The Next Level” turns out to be a great showcase for her versatility as a performer since she has to portray the personalities of two vastly different “real-world” people during her screentime. She manages to nail both of them, and in the process gets some of the biggest laughs of the project. The other primary cast members are amusing but are mostly just doing reheated leftover versions of their performances from the last “Jumanji” movie. Black especially finds less success in channeling a musclebound college kid than he did in portraying a teenage girl, though he still admirably gives the role his all.
Both “Jumanji” movies have turned out to be old-school Hollywood affairs, relying heavily on the comedic rapport of big-name actors - a smart move since director Jake Kasdan has had plenty of successful experience with that in his prior directorial efforts, chief among them “Walk Hard.” Anytime “Jumanji” shifts into other gears, it tends to fall flatter, particularly when it comes time for action-set pieces. Many of these sequences in “The Next Level” are just a barrage of uninvolving CGI animals chasing our lead characters across distractingly fake landscapes. “The Next Level’s” action scenes are mostly just a lot of noise that make you wonder when we can get back to the smaller-scale bits of comedic acting.
The attempts at characterization in “Jumanji: The Next Level” are similarly lacking in consistent success. At least the assorted arcs are executed cogently: There’s a clear beginning, middle and end for them, and at least this is the rare comedy sequel that doesn’t jettison the female lead of its predecessor. Points for that. But too often the character beats are wholly detached from the comedy/adventure antics transpiring onscreen. What do ostriches racing after our heroes have to do with their personal woes? Basically nothing. Eddie and Milo’s long-standing bitterness especially comes off as too disengaged from the rest of the movie. There are a solid amount of laughs to be had in “Jumanji: The Next Level,” but the action and character elements are undercooked enough to ensure that it can’t escape the shadow of its predecessor.
Douglas Laman is a film critic who, when not watching movies, attends Collin College and hangs out with friends. For more of his work and ramblings, visit his website at www.landofthenerds.blogspot.com.