Chris Van Allsburg’s children’s book Jumanji, which is all of 32 pages long, tells a story about a brother and sister who find a mysterious board game under a tree while their parents are on a date at the opera. The game, which is called Jumanji, looks like any other, except that every roll of the dice causes a new danger to materialize in the children’s home: monkeys run wild in the kitchen, rhinoceros stampede through the living rom, lava erupts in the fireplace. At last, the game is finished. The house goes back to the way it was, the animals disappear, the game is placed back under the tree, and the parents return from the opera to find their children asleep on the living room sofa.
The mid-1990s film adaptation of Jumanji, directed by the former visual effects artist Joe Johnston, expanded the story to feature length by piling it with digital animal effects (which haven’t aged well) and off-brand Spielbergian pathos (which has). The children, spared the indignity of having opera-loving snobs for parents, now became orphans; they discover a cursed board game in the attic of an old house and release, along with the monkeys and the zebras, an overgrown wild boy (played by Robin Williams) who had been trapped inside the world of Jumanji since the 1960s. The film isn’t exactly a classic, but it deserves some of the fondness with which it tends to be remembered by the generation who grew up with it as a VHS and DVD staple.
Unlike Van Allsburg’s book or Johnston’s movie (to which it is an official sequel), Jumanji: Welcome To The Jungle wasn’t really made with an audience of children in mind; nothing with a two-hour running time could be. But that doesn’t mean that there was anything more grown-up or sophisticated about its concoction of family-friendly star power, brand recognition, and nostalgia, in which four high school seniors were turned into player characters inside a Jumanji video game. The nerd became a macho hero (Dwayne Johnson), the wallflower became a Lara-Croft-inspired ass-kicker (Karen Gillan), the jock became a sidekick (Kevin Hart), the ditzy popular girl became a scientist (Jack Black). The movie, which was directed by the comedy journeyman Jake Kasdan, made $962 million at the global box office. So now we have Jumanji: The Next Level, which is more of the same.
The teens, who learned all kinds of important lessons about confidence and teamwork the last time around, are now college freshmen on holiday break. But while things seem to have turned out well for Fridge the jock (Ser’Darius Blain), Bethany the ditz (Madison Iseman), and Martha the wallflower (Morgan Turner), the post-Jumanji life of Spencer (Alex Wolff), the nerd who became their leader, has been anything but promising. Pining for the strength of his Jumanji alter ego, the two-fisted Dr. Smolder Bravestone (Johnson), he ends up going back into the game, which he had secretly hidden in his basement. (The cartridge and console were crushed with a bowling ball at the end of Welcome To The Jungle, but who cares—it’s magic.) Soon, his friends follow, and find themselves being sent off on a new generic quest by oblivious, exposition-delivering NPC Nigel Billingsley (Rhys Darby): solve riddles, find a magical jewel, defeat the bad guy.
Welcome To The Jungle, which was basically a high-concept body-swapping comedy (complete with high-school stereotypes of Reagan-era vintage), got varied mileage out of the idea that we were watching teenagers trapped in unlikely avatars. The Next Level throws in a twist by having most of the characters swap roles. In returning to the game, the friends also end up accidentally bringing along Spencer’s cranky grandpa, Eddie (Danny DeVito), and his estranged best friend and former business partner, Milo (Danny Glover). The former takes his grandson’s place as Bravestone, while the latter takes over Fridge’s role as the diminutive Mouse Finbar (Hart), whose main role in the gameplay is to carry a bottomless backpack. There are new avatars, too, including a cat burglar named Ming (Awkwafina); thanks to some more body-swapping, she ends up getting possessed by two different players over the course of the film.
It’s worth noting here that, if it weren’t for the element of imminent physical danger, the Jumanji board game of Van Allsburg’s book and the first film would be pretty boring. This is equally true of the video game in The Next Level, a sadistic walking simulator with an occasional cut scene or jumping puzzle. Apart from some jokes about awkwardly looping NPC dialogue (recycled from Welcome To The Jungle), it feels less like a parody of game tropes and more like an excuse for the clunky mechanics of the script. Returning as director and co-writer, Kasdan shows no real flair for extended, effects-heavy chase scenes (of which Next Level has several, involving killer ostriches, vicious mandrills, and armed henchmen) or environments. One understands that the world of Jumanji is meant to be generic. Would it be too much to ask that it at least be funny?
Too often, The Next Level passes off callbacks to gags from its predecessor as jokes, all while presuming that viewers have an unhealthy familiarity with the Jumanji canon. (To anyone who hasn’t seen Welcome To The Jungle: Good luck figuring out who Colin Hanks and Nick Jonas are supposed to be playing in this movie.) The actors end up having to pick up most of the slack. Slowing his voice down and dropping it an octave out of his usual motor-mouthed yelp, Hart does a winning Danny Glover impression as the Milo-controlled Finbar. Unfortunately, he spends much of the time sparring with Johnson, whose manic impression of an old man in a big buff dude’s body (complete with an accent that keeps migrating from Rhode Island to Coney Island) may be the single worst performance of the reliably charismatic actor’s career. Let’s be honest: If you’re asking the Rock to do voices, you’re out of ideas.