In 2017, the Jumanji reboot welcomed a new generation of filmgoers to the jungle. The film was a lively good time: It turned the cursed board game from the original 1995 Jumanji into a video game, forcing an unlucky group of teenagers to inhabit a set of game avatars that clashed with their own personalities. The game characters were played by an all-star cast — Dwayne Johnson, Jack Black, Kevin Hart, Karen Gillan — who all seemed to be playing as far from their comfort zones as possible, while telling a heartwarming story about overcoming surface differences and becoming friends.
The sequel, Jumanji: The Next Level, boasts most of the same ingredients, including director Jake Kasdan. The twist, this time: Danny DeVito and Danny Glover accidentally come along for the game. Or rather, The-Rock-as-Danny-DeVito and Kevin-Hart-as-Danny-Glover wind up in the story.
Where Welcome to the Jungle was about making friends in high school, The Next Level is about hanging onto them while headed to college and beyond. Since breaking free of the Jumanji game, Spencer (Alex Wolff), Bethany (Madison Iseman), Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain), and Martha (Morgan Turner) have graduated from high school, and the shift has frayed the bonds they forged in the video game jungle. Spencer, who’s gone to New York for college, feels isolated from his friends and adrift at school. Having kept the pieces of the game following the events of the first movie, he dives back in, seeking the reassurance of once again being Dr. Smolder Bravestone (Johnson). And when Spencer disappears, his friends realize they have no choice but to join him in the game.
Jumanji being Jumanji, the process isn’t that simple. The teenagers broke the game at the end of Welcome to the Jungle in an attempt to keep history from repeating itself, and Spencer’s makeshift ministrations to the console mean that this time around, the players can’t choose their characters. Martha once again becomes the commando Ruby Roundhouse (Gillan), but Fridge, who was once zoologist “Mouse” Finbar (Hart), has taken on Bethany’s former avatar, Professor Shelly Oberon (Black). Bethany is left behind, and Spencer’s grandfather Eddie (DeVito) becomes Bravestone instead, with Eddie’s former friend Milo (Glover) becoming Mouse.
The switcheroo helps keep The Next Level fresh, even though it isn’t doing anything notably different from Welcome to the Jungle. Hart doing his best Glover impression is especially great, since he has to forgo the motormouth antics he’s best known for, and slow his performance down. Johnson as DeVito is also inspired, since they’re such opposites: the Rock would arguably be cast opposite DeVito in a modern-day version of Twins. But Johnson’s impression of DeVito falters in the more dramatic scenes. That kind of broad impression is easier to play for laughs than for pathos.
As more characters are added to the game, however — Bethany enlists the help of Alex (Colin Hanks), the lost player they encountered in their first go-round, and Spencer is still out there somewhere — the movie starts to grow a little unwieldy. It’s like watching a tabletop campaign with too many players; as each character takes their turn, the action slows a little, and when it picks back up, it’s occasionally by leaving some characters out of the action.
But the joy of Jumanji — watching actors play parts they’d never be asked to otherwise — remains intact. It’s just a pity that DeVito is outside of the game, rather than in it. Earlier this year, Dumbo reasserted that he’s a wonderful dramatic actor, though he’s now best known as a chaos agent thanks to It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. His ruminations on aging in The Next Level are moving to watch, and a little more potent when he’s able to relay them himself.
The game aspect of Jumanji reclaims some of that lost ground with clearly shot action, as animals and rogues pursue the heroes, and in how the real treasure becomes the friends they make (or re-make) along the way. The story behind the level they’re clearing is fairly mundane: A warlord (Rory McCann) has stolen a magical jewel from a village, resulting in the death of their crops. It’s the human drama that keep the franchise compelling — the reconciliations between Eddie and Milo, and between Spencer and his friends — along with the co-op/MMORPG-esque satisfaction of completing a task with your pals.
Most importantly, The Next Level succeeds as a hook. Welcome to the Jungle didn’t need a follow-up, but The Next Level actually ups the ante, rebuking flagging reboots by addressing its material thoughtfully. It makes the return to the jungle a thrill, and, crucially, makes it easy to imagine coming back for more.
Jumanji: The Next Level hits theaters Dec. 13.