Jumanji:  The Next Level

 

            Yes, sequels are risky, because it's always difficult to re-create the uniqueness of the original.  But writer/director Jake Kasdan brings back the whole original crew, and adds a couple of characters who are easily relatable.  And it doesn't hurt that they are veteran stars in their own right.

            Danny DeVito and Danny Glover bring their personal chemistry to the mix, as well as Awkwafina, to add to the already-established dynamics between Dwayne Johnson, Jack Black, Kevin Hart, Nick Jonas, and Karen Gillan.  The premise is the same:  the “Jumanji” board game is re-discovered in a basement, somebody touches it, and WHAM!, everybody in the room is suddenly transported into a video game.  And they become the characters in the game, their “Avatars.”

            What's fun is for the Hollywood stars to play against type.  So the big, musclebound Dwayne Johnson, instead of the swaggering action hero, gets to play a softer and more timid personality.  Kevin Hart is adjusting to the fact that in “real” life he was much bigger.  His avatar also has “linguistic” skills, which plays out by taking a long time to explain everything.  But the good news is that he can talk to animals, like camels, which can come in handy for getting around in unfamiliar territory.  Jack Black gets to explore his feminine side, and also be the only one who can read a map and get the group where it needs to go.

            Writer/Director Kasdan also has fun playing with the CGI, so that we have the group struggling in a desert landscape (with the musical score conjuring up some “Lawrence of Arabia” echoes), then it's snowy mountains, then jungle.  Oh, and they're attacked not just by normal animals, but by a big flock of ostriches, and then a troop of baboons, swinging on suspension bridges, no less. 

            As for plot, well, we have the nominal bad guy who's in possession of the uniquely bright gem that will enable our reluctant explorers to actually escape.  The original group of characters didn't really want to return, because of their harrowing adventures before, but one of them dives into “Jumanji” anyway, and the rest go after him to “rescue” him. So obviously we're touting teamwork and loyalty.  Scratch the relational surface, and we also have a little on-again/off-again romance, and estranged friends who need reconciling.  Oh, and one of the group who's depressed finds sometimes finds it difficult to function, and we make allowance for his social lapses as a result.  You can see where it's headed---valuing the strength of friendship, while still embracing the diversity of individuals.

            Some of the impersonations of other characters are better than others.  Some of the fake accents are distracting.  And when they change identities more than once, it can be a bit confusing.  Nevertheless, overall, it's a fun little adventure tale that a PG-13 family can enjoy together.

 

Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, DFW Film Critics Association