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Movie

Jumanji: The Next Level
(2019)

 

A sequel that, for the most part, repeats the strengths and weaknesses of its predecessor. Which means there’s a lot of fun to be had during the early stages of Jumanji: The Next Level and the “getting to know your avatar”, but an inevitable petering out as the straighter-playing action questing progressively takes over. And as before, it’s the natural comedians who come out best, Kevin Hart taking home the lion’s share of the laughs. Although, a mid-stage appearance from Awkwafina nearly passes him on the inside on the home straight.

The best notion by far Jake Kasdan’s sequel – co-penned with also returning Jeff Pinkner and Scott Rosenberg; presumably Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers are now far too busy wowing Marvel to repeat – comes up with is mixing up the those behind the familiar avatars, making it equally retrograde that they should eventually revert to the familiar personas.

Consequently, the most obvious dividends come from Hart’s superlative Danny Glover impression. Glover’s Milo, estranged friend and former business parter to Danny DeVito’s Eddie… Who is grandparent to Alex Wolff’s returning Spencer. Whose avatar was previously Dr Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson). This time out, Johnson “doing” DeVito isn’t really up to much, it has to be said (although, DeVito’s no great shakes at the “smoulder” when returned to the real world).

Indeed, the essential limitations of half the actors as avatars are borne out by Karen Gillan, once again playing Morgan Turner’s Martha. Barring a brief interlude where she gets to be Ser’Darius Blain’s Fridge which… Well, I’m sure the writing team thrashed out the pros and cons of each performer being stretched before they put pen to paper.

Awkwafina’s far more successful at doing both Spencer (actually, frighteningly good at Spencer) and DeVito, and you wish she’d been given material with as many opportunities for yuks as Hart (maybe next time). Both seem readily able to get into the mannerisms and postures and pains of the elderly, something the Rock probably won’t relate to even when he is elderly.

Jack Black, meanwhile, mugs effectively enough as Fridge and, briefly, Martha, before eventually reverting to Bethany (Madison Iseman). But his mode is one-note broad in everything (and often loud with it), so he fails to pull off anything remotely as impressive as Hart and Awkwafina. Nick Jonas and Colin Hanks, an unearned afterthought, are equally forgettably bland in their returning combination of avatar and real individual.

What character development there is relates mainly to Eddie’s grudge against Milo for breaking up their business and their subsequent mending of fences, along with a half-hearted stab at discussing the aging process (DeVito’s final change of heart about getting old really doesn’t travel, as we’ve seen little reason for him to reach that conclusion).

The Eddie plotline is bizarre to say the least, since not long after he has revealed himself to be terminally ill, he is transformed into a (winged) horse and utters not a word for the rest of the movie, except to reveal via the Dolittle-ish abilities of Hart’s avatar that he wishes to stay in the virtual tech “heaven” that is Jumanji. As a horse. It’s a curiously warped idea; in another movie, the same basic device would be recognised as a Matrix-style deceit, a hellish prison sentence fit only for a psycho like Cypher, but here, it’s sunshine and roses.

Of the returning quartet, the excursion back into the game results from the slenderest of motivations, Spencer doubting himself when no longer cloaked in the guise of musclebound Dr Bravestone and breaking off with Martha as a result. Which means he regains his confidence quite swiftly when they are back in the bodies of Bravestone and Ruby Roundhouse – thus sending out all the wrong messages, if you were expecting Jumanji: The Next Level to send out positive messages.

Kasdan keeps things moving, and if he’s no action maestro, he and his effects team put together an energetic and effective centrepiece set piece involving a mandrill attack/rope bridges crossing. There’s also an amusing ostrich-related desert chase and Johnson as DeVito beating up an entire army of aggressors. Rory McCann (Game of Thrones’ the Hound) is imaginatively cast as great hulking brute of a warlord (and duly cannot do anything remotely interesting with it), while it’s nice to see Bebe Neuwirth reprising her role from the 1995 original, however briefly.

It’s already being suggested that Jumanji: The Next Level doesn’t stand a chance of coming close to Welcome to the Jungle’s global gross, chiefly owing to a tepid reception in China. But also because, even with the change up, it’s unable to reignite the original spin appeal of its predecessor.

Still, it will surely do very nicely all the same over the holiday season, and more than guarantee the teased next instalment, bringing us right back round to the unleashed insanity in the real-world Jumanji. I think the key to sustaining this series going forward – aside from actually coming up with an interesting plotline – will be ditching cast members unable to keep things fresh; there are at least a couple who have already reached their sell-by dates.

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