2019 | rated PG-13 | starring Karen Gillan, Dwayne Johnson, Jack Black, Kevin Hart, Danny DeVito, Danny Glover, Nick Jonas, Alex Wolff, Madison Iseman, Awkwafina | directed by Jake Kasdan | 2 hrs 3 mins |
The Jumanji reboot series is one of the happy miracles of modern studio filmmaking. They are smart, exciting, and endlessly, viscously, entertaining with big action set pieces that balance character stories, both clever in concept and execution. This once-controversial remake idea has become the very best franchise right now that delivers classic Speilbergian summer movie adventure in a way that Hollywood feels like it has forgotten how to make. I love these movies.
Previously on Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, director/co-writer Jake Kasdan and his merry band of creative gremlins came up with the genius idea to take the original, wonderful 1997 film and Chris Van Allsburg book and flip it inside out. Instead of rampaging rhinos and tricky monkeys they upgrade the board game to an evil video game console and sucked the players into the world’s jungle. It came with a wrap-around where a group of teenagers from different high school cliques (the nerd, jock, popular babe and activist) were forced into the game and took the role of video game trope characters working together to save their 3 allotted lives and get out. Even the video game tropes seemed like the movie was built by someone whose played a video game in the last decade. The follow-up, The Next Level, with Kasdan and the entire original cast returning, is more of what worked the first time with a few self-aware surprises to keep things from being repetitive.
Next Level builds new worlds, challenges and body-swap jokes for our heroes and doesn’t break the tiniest sweat doing it. This time Spencer (Alex Wolff, Hereditary) is drawn back to the game by his now rocky relationship with Martha (Morgan Turner) and his tired post-high school life, yearning for the power he once felt as Dr. Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson) in Jumanji. The rest of the group, Martha, Bethany (Madison Iseman, Annabelle) and Fridge (Ser’Darius Blane) go in after him. With the original group now BFFs, the movie brings in Danny DeVito as Spencer’s grandfather and Danny Glover as his former business partner, who also get sucked into the game to be confounded by their new, young bodies. Their broken friendship becomes the emotional core of the film, which is as concerned about them as it is having Bravestone hang from wooden bridges and Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan, elevated significantly to carry the movie) jump-kicking around a medieval castle. We’ve also got Jack Black playing duel role as both Fridge and Bethany, Awkwafina terrific in duel role and Kevin Hart absolutely hilarious as Danny Glover’s slow-talking Milo.
Next Level is a very busy movie packed with moments where each member of it’s large cast gets a moment to shine without any of it feeling too over-stuffed. And we haven’t even gotten into the game story, which involves a large jewel a warlord stole from an ancient tribe, a Jumanji Fruit Tree and an enemy for Bravestone. The jungle is replaced with a desert, dune buggies and a Himalayan mountaintop fortress.
The Next Level is a blast and the best of what studio filmmaking has to offer. As a sequel it is so pumped with imagination that it manages to be as fresh as the first film, using our heroes knowledge of the world to spin it in new directions with new challenges. I have no knock against it. It’s not following any lame Hollywood trend, it is ahead of it. It isn’t forced with politics or agendas, it is beyond it. It is perfectly structured without feeling a slave to convention. It is over 2 hours of pure old-fashioned genre pleasure. Here’s to seeing what Kasdan has cooked up for a third level.