2017 Jumanji sequel Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle was a surprise hit for Sony, bringing a decades-old franchise back to life onscreen with the help of some serious star power (The Rock, Jack Black, Kevin Hart and Karen Gillan take lead roles), a subtly sweet story and plenty of crowd-pleasing action.
Now, just two years later they’re back with a sequel, and the central message couldn’t be clearer – if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. And to be honest that wasn’t a bad call, with the winning formula of the last film making for another funny, action-packed and satisfying piece of popcorn filmmaking in this sequel.
Once again we catch up with our young heroes Spencer (Alex Wolff), Martha (Morgan Turner), Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain) and Bethany (Madison Iseman) as they’re sucked into the cursed jungle-themed videogame Jumanji (an update on the boardgame in the original 1995 Robin Williams film), forced to learn the ropes as their stereotypical in-game avatars (Johnson, Gillan et al) before taking on a dastardly foe, stealing a crystal and winning their way back into the real world.
Given that the end of the last adventure saw them destroying the game, this abrupt volte-face could be a little jarring, but the reasons for their return do actually ring true. While the last film saw each of the kids learn confidence, empathy and inner strength through their time in the game, the years since have been tough for Spencer, and it’s not hard to empathise with his abrupt decision, taken in a low moment, to fix the game and become the all-powerful, buff and fearless videogame character (Johnson) that made him feel indestructible in the original adventure.
Unfortunately, the broken and recreated game is malfunctioning (in a conveniently plot-facilitating way) so Spencer doesn’t become Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s Dr Smoulder Bravestone – instead, when his friends follow him into the game that role is taken by his grandfather Eddie (a brilliantly acerbic Danny DeVito), while his old colleague Milo (Danny Glover) becomes Kevin Hart’s diminuitive “Mouse” Finbar.
This means we’re all treated to Hart’s terrific impersonation of Glover, and Johnson’s… less subtle version of DeVito, and it’s really this pairing that forms the heart of the new film as the mystery of their past together comes to light.
Martha ends up as Karen Gillan’s avatar again, while Fridge ends up with map specialist Jack Black – though it’s not too much of a spoiler (it’s featured in trailers) to note that this isn’t the only surprise switch to take place through the movie as the game malfunctions again. Yes, more impressions ensue, some better than others.
Apart from this, though, the “malfunctioning” game narrative doesn’t really intrude much on the story. Just like last time, the Jumanji cartridge is able to generate a complex, fully-realised world of challenges, vicious jungle animals and Non-Playable Characters (NPCs), and it feels like a bit of a wasted opportunity for the “broken” game to not throw in a few glitches, insurmountable challenges or other surprise twists.
As it stands, it’s just vicious ostriches, a cruel hyena-loving villain (played by Game of Thrones star Rory McCann, one of the only actors working who can make the Rock look puny) and an ice fortress full of goons between our heroes and their freedom – assuming that DeVito and Glover’s old gents don’t completely torpedo their chances of completing the game (the senior citizens’ complete lack of videogame knowledge making for a handy excuse for some exposition).
These action scenes are as entertaining as ever, with stand-outs including a race across spinning bridges while pursued by Mandrills (which does actually feel quite videogame-y), a dune buggy chase with a horde of ostriches and some great fight scenes, especially when Grandpa Eddie decides to try out his new abilities on an endless army of bad guys.
Jack Black, Karen Gillan, Awkwafina and Dwayne Johnson in Jumanji: The Next Level (Sony)
But the emotional through-line is also fairly skilfully handled, with both Spencer’s issues and the frostiness between Eddie and Milo coming to the fore as the adventure continues – though I will say, the conclusion for Milo’s storyline feels a little unsatisfying in the way it’s delivered, and raises some pretty major questions about the real-life implications of what happens in the game.
Overall, there’s not much more to say about this film other than that if you enjoyed the first film, literally everything from it – Rhys Darby’s NPC Nigel, Nick Jonas’ extra hero Alex, jokes about cake and dance-fighting – is here, along with plenty of new stuff including a great turn by Ocean’s 8 and The Farewell’s Awkwafina as another videogame avatar who plays a crucial role.
No, it’s nothing new – literally, it’s the same plot recycled, down to the magic crystal – and there’s no major twists on the formula, but there’s something enjoyable about watching a franchise that truly nails what it does best.
And based on the ending, the next next level (assuming they make a sequel) may bring a bigger twist anyway…
Jumanji: The Next Level is in UK cinemas from Wednesday 11th December