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The game is afoot … again – ‘Jumanji: The Next Level’

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When “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” came out a couple of years ago, I was as surprised as anyone when it turned out to actually be pretty good. Who’d have thought a two-decades-later sort-of-sequel to a mid-90s kids movie would turn out to be both entertaining and WILDLY lucrative?

Well, having the Rock doesn’t hurt.

After that film did just shy of a billion dollars at the global box office, it was obviously going to get a sequel of its own. That sequel has arrived, as “Jumanji: The Next Level” has hit theaters.

And guess what? This one’s pretty good too. Not as good as the last one, perhaps, but solid. One assumes it will also make hundreds of millions of dollars.

The young teens from the last film have grown up a little, heading off to college and the like. But despite the best efforts of Martha (Morgan Turner, “Wonderstruck”), Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain, “Bolden”) and Bethany (Madison Iseman, “Riot Girls”), they’ve lost touch somewhat with Spencer (Alex Wolff, “Human Capital”), who is struggling to find his way as a student at NYU.

When they come home for the holidays, Spencer holes up at home despite the fact that his grandfather Eddie (Danny DeVito, “Dumbo”) is staying in his room as he recovers from hip surgery. His friends reach out, but Spencer ignores them, choosing instead to heed the siren call of the old video game system that led to their previous adventure.

Martha, Fridge and Bethany come looking for Spencer, only to bump into Grandpa Eddie and his estranged friend Milo (Danny Glover, “The Dead Don’t Die”). In the basement, they discover the repaired system – and no Spencer. He’s gone back to Jumanji and his friends go after him … only something goes wrong.

Martha returns as karate expert Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan, “Avengers: Endgame”), but Fridge is now cartographer Professor Sheldon Oberon (Jack Black, “The House with a Clock in Its Walls”) and Bethany is nowhere to be found. Occupying the forms of muscular adventurer Dr. Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson, “Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw”) and diminutive zoologist Mouse Finbar (Kevin Hart, “The Secret Life of Pets 2”) are … Eddie and Milo.

Martha and Fridge have no choice but to help usher the clueless old-timers through the world of Jumanji, despite their limited comprehension of what’s going on or how any of this works. The group is given a new mission by helpful NPC Nigel (Rhys Darby, “Mosley”); they are to rescue a magic gem from the clutches of a warlord named Jurgen the Brutal (Rory McCann, TV’s “Game of Thrones”) and save Jumanji.

Along the way, they encounter other characters old and new, including Seaman (Nick Jonas, “Midway”), a thief named Ming (Awkwafina, “The Farewell”) and even a horse named Cyclone. With danger on all sides, they must try and figure out a way to get the jewel, save Jumanji and find their way home.

Look, director Jake Kasdan and the rest of the team aren’t reinventing the wheel here. “Jumanji: The Next Level” is largely the same as the film that came before it. The story beats are similar, matching as they do with the beats in a video game narrative. There are some big action set pieces and some goofy sight gags and some quippy dialogue. It follows the blueprint without a lot of deviation. In the macro, it hews close to its predecessor.

And that’s OK – its predecessor was fun.

What differences there are come through in the details. Specifically, the casting additions. Because while our real-world folks remain relatively uninvolved – Wolff, Turner, Blain, Iseman and even DeVito and Glover – their presence gives the other actors, the video game avatars, a magnificent gift. These avatars are occupied by their real-world players. Hence, they will use the speech patterns and mannerisms of those players.

Are you picking up what I’m putting down? Because what I’m telling you is that a good chunk of this movie involves The Rock doing action movie stuff while also doing an impression of cranky old confused Danny DeVito. And Kevin Hart does his thing while also pulling off an extremely entertaining old man Danny Glover. And Jack Black gets to play as a college football player who does not at all care for the character he is playing. It’s a bit that should get old, but absolutely does not.

Gillan gets to play it the same way, though she too gets a shot at mixing it up, albeit in a different way. It gets even better when Awkwafina and Jonas and the horse show up, but I won’t go into details there – spoilers and all that. Darby captures the spirit of the video game NPC in a wonderful way, while McCann is an outstanding bad guy, a big pile of growling menace.

I’ll be real with you – I didn’t know I wanted to see The Rock and Kevin Hart to give me their best Danny and Danny until I saw it … and then I was very glad I did.

Look, the plot is thin in spots and there aren’t a whole lot of surprises, but that’s fine. The film is goofy, inoffensive fun, a live-action adventure for the whole family, and that’s a good thing. No one shows up to a movie like this looking for an Oscar winner.

“Jumanji: The Next Level” is a worthwhile continuation of the series, an enjoyable and entertaining popcorn romp that never pretends to be anything other than what it is – a fast-paced and funny film that’s a fine way to kill a couple of hours.

[4 out of 5]

Last modified on Tuesday, 17 December 2019 08:33

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