Jumanji: The Next Level (2019)

Jumanji: The Next Level It occurs to me that I’ve cranked out hundreds of reviews without ever using the word “contrived.”  Like an ace of clubs, that adjective has been tucked away, just waiting to be deployed.  Well, grab onto the handrails, ‘cuz this ride’s about to get spicy:  While Jumanji: The Next Level hits a lot of the same high notes as its surprisingly tolerable predecessor, it also feels overlong, mechanical, and……….contrived.  Phew!  Felt good to play that card.  Now I’ve got to shuffle it back in the deck for a while.

I’m a straight shooter, so here’s a quick disclaimer:  The rest of this review assumes you’ve seen Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle.  If you haven’t, then find it, stream it, and get your happy ass back here.  And now, on with the countdown.  Actually, a little more straight talk:  I’ve never been a fan of the 90s Jumanji.  It’s a noisy, overrated CGI orgy that has Robin Williams going for it and not much else.  Jungle, Jake Kasdan’s soft reboot, actually benefitted from the low bar set by the previous film.  By not being a steaming cobbler of horse apples, the second Jumanji film became a pleasant surprise.

Verse 3:  The Next Level shows our heroes wandering on separate paths.  Geeky Spencer (Alex Wolff) struggles with loneliness and insecurity as a New York City college student.  His long-range relationship with Martha (Morgan Turner) is faltering, as well.  Bethany (Madison Iseman) travels the world and humblebrags about it on social media.  Meanwhile, good-hearted Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain) focuses on his football career.  The gang still loves each other, but their sparse meetings now have some of that John Hughes bittersweetness to them.

Trouble strikes when Spencer gets a serious case of Jumaji wanderlust.  He longs for the granitic confidence of his in-game avatar, Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson).  The other kids soon find that Spence has reentered the treacherous video game world.  With great reluctance, they fire up the controllers and go chasing after him.  In a novel twist, hardly anybody ends up with the avatars they want:  Martha gets Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan) again, but Fridge downloads into Shelly Oberon (Jack Black), the puny scientist.  Meanwhile, Smolder and Mouse (Kevin Hart) get inhabited by Spencer’s elderly grandfather (Danny DeVito) and his estranged buddy (Danny Glover), respectively.

I’ll qualify a previous statement:  That whole geriatric body-switch thing is a novel twist FOR A VERY SHORT TIME ONLY.  Hart and Johnson fire off a few funny old man jokes.  But after twenty, or thirty, or forty wheezy riffs in a row, I’m afraid that horse has been beaten deader than disco.  Still, the script keeps going back to the same one-liners, much like George Costanza anxiously stomping in to announce the Jerk Store has just sold out of you.

That said, The Next Level has some flourishes of fun.  Big action set pieces involving ostriches and levitating drawbridges work really well and add genuine excitement.  Gillan gets a lot of lead time, and she shines as an action heroine.  Nick Jonas adds some welcome swagger as the gang’s veteran guide.  Finally, series newcomer Akwafina steals a few scenes as a kvetchy cat burglar.  But the film’s most welcome trait lies in its refusal to take itself seriously.  Returning director Kasdan never loses sight of the fact that this is a movie set in a video game.

Despite all that, this Jumanji never feels essential.  The best sequels blow our minds, and forever alter the way we see the movies that came before.  Here, you’ll get some of what you love, but also a lot of what you won’t.  Like many follow-ups, Jumanji: The Next Level ends up feeling more than a little contrived forced.

123 min.  PG-13.

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Author: Todd Wofford

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