Movie adaptations of video games have largely resulted in failure. When you think of such stinkers as Super Mario Bros. and House of the Dead, the winners like Mortal Kombat and some of the Resident Evil titles almost achieve guilt by association. Sonic the Hedgehog rushes into theaters soon, and the Blue Blur already required digital tweaking after the trailer generated such negative reaction. The filmmakers took a better approach with 2017’s Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle by abandoning the plot of the original book and cleverly putting real people into a video game’s characters to “win” the mission. The success of that film compelled an inevitable sequel, so the challenge was for the filmmakers to not just rehash the same idea. Jumanji: The Next Level lives up to the title by delivering enough new elements and surprises to continue the ascent of this fun franchise.
It helps that the same director (Jake Kasdan) and writers (Jeff Pinkner and Scott Rosenberg, along with Kasdan) revisit this internal video game world known as Jumanji. As with the first movie, a group of friends get sucked into a special/magical video game console when it goes haywire. Right from the start, things are different because one of the friends (Spencer, played by Alex Wolff) does not appear when the others enter the game. Even worse, Spencer’s grandfather Eddie (Danny DeVito) and Eddie’s old business partner Milo (Danny Glover) become two of the game’s main characters along with Martha (Morgan Turner) and Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain) in a mix-up that causes everyone pain. Eddie and Milo have no idea what’s going on, and Martha and Fridge work double time to bring them up to speed as well as “play” the game. Dwayne Johnson, Jack Black, Kevin Hart and Karen Gillan return as the main “avatars” (characters) for the friends, and once the movie enters the game mode, it mostly stays there with the four characters surviving as they try to find a precious jewel and escape the game.
You can tell that everyone in the cast loves this project. Johnson pokes fun at himself with his character’s “smoldering intensity” and more than makes up for 2005’s Doom. Johnson brings his energy and personality to every role, and Dr. Smolder Bravestone fits him like a glove. Black and Hart deliver the laughs that counter the action from Johnson and Gillan, an even bigger badass in this second outing. Awkwafina joins the cast as Ming Fleetfoot, and it’s hard not to like this accomplished actress and comic. Johnson and Hart perhaps pull off the best stunt by channeling DeVito and Glover respectively. I would have loved to watch them develop their impressions of the film legends. Reminiscent of 1997’s Face/Off but not nearly as complicated, Johnson mimes DeVito’s annoyed, grumpy old man who says “meh” a lot, and Hart hams it up by trying to talk like Glover. The impressions make their scenes all the more hilarious and endearing.
The video game aspects don’t go overboard or sabotage the plot. Early on, Eddie and Milo learn (along with anyone new to these movies) that they have three “lives” in the game and that they die in the real world if they use them up. Simple line tattoos on their arms represent these lives, so you don’t have to keep track of them yourself. Also, each character has strengths and weaknesses that pop up on a display when desired. Franklin “Mouse” Finbar (Hart) can talk to animals based on his zoologist background, and Professor Sheldon “Shelly” Oberon (Black) reads maps and navigates. The creative “levels” move the plot along quickly and depict different environments where the characters can thrive like any video game. The desert setting not only provides some amazing scenery, but it also tests the characters and establishes the rules of the game. Like many games, you will see plenty of bad guys and other environments like an ice fortress. Nigel Billingsley (Rhys Darby) returns as the primary NPC (non-player character) who moves the plot along, and a few other NPCs lead to some funny situations that gamers will recognize.
If the focus was only on the game world, Jumanji: The Next Level would hardly live up to its name. Instead, the film feels a lot larger because parallel plots in the real world drive what’s going on inside and outside the game console. Also, the various game locations take the characters beyond the jungle and require them to use their brains to escape the dangers, ranging from intense temperatures to animal attacks. Mandrills always seemed violent to me, and a sequence on rising and falling bridges further confirms that opinion. The relationship between Eddie and Milo adds a layer of emotion and camaraderie that you can appreciate as these old friends argue, reconcile, connect and enjoy a grand adventure without any of the trappings of old age in the real world. Wouldn’t anyone love to jump into a video game for that kind of experience?
I don’t doubt that there’s another sequel in the works. The goal now should be to not repeat the past and somehow fit the same game characters into a different kind of adventure, maybe even in our world. There are so many types of video games that the filmmakers should stew on it a while and cleverly merge one or more of those genres with an interesting plot. I know that they spent some money to license the titular song “Welcome to the Jungle” by Guns N’ Roses and use it again in the sequel. It might be time to retire that song and come up with something else. Jumanji: The Next Level entertained me from start to finish, and I look forward to hearing those drums that signal the start of another adventure.