Hey. Hey, you. Yeah, you. Did you like Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle aka the one with the Rock aka not the one with Robin Williams? You did. Cool. Cool, cool, cool. You’re probably going to like Jumanji: The Next Level. It’s basically more of the same, except this time they have scenes set in the snow. So, you know, that’s different. If you’re a gamer, think of the way the first Uncharted game took place in the jungle and the second opened with Nathan hanging from a crashed train car about to tip over a snowy mountain. Both games ultimately offer the same experience, just in different locales, and that small change is kind of all you need to feel like you’re getting something new.
Not a gamer. Never even heard of Uncharted.
Well, Sony’s not gonna like that. Those are Playstation exclusives. Beyond that, Uncharted is one of the best video game franchises of all time. I mean, the mere fact that you haven’t heard of it…did you not notice the Uncharted poster on Spencer’s wall in the last Jumanji? You know what, don’t answer that because the answer is clearly yes.
I fear I hit a nerve.
Serenity now, serenity now. Ok. Can Sony at least count on your money for the new Jumanji?
Maybe. Keep talking.
The premise: the same glorified Breakfast Club kids from the first film are back, only this time they’re slightly older. Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain) and Martha (Morgan Turner) are coming into their own at college. Bethany (Madison Iseman) is enjoying a gap year traveling abroad. Spencer (Alex Wolff aka not Jason Schwartzman), however, is sad and lonely. His relationship with Martha apparently died the moment they graduated and went off to different colleges. Now, he’s single, stuck working retail, and when he travels home for the holidays he’s forced to share his room with his cantankerous grandpa Eddie (Danny DeVito). Needing a confidence boost, Spencer goes back into the world of Jumanji and…
Hold on. Didn’t they destroy the game at the end of Welcome to the Jungle?
They did indeed. Smashed it to smithereens with a bowling ball, but they don’t make smithereens like they used to. No, those little bits can always be repaired now, or at least they can when your movie shocks the world and becomes the highest-grossing non-Spider-Man title in Sony’s history.
The last one made historic money. A sequel had to happen. So, Next Level doesn’t devote a lot of time to explaining away Welcome to the Jungle’s finale. The group agreed to destroy the game and the old video game consoled that played it. Spencer secretly scooped up all the little pieces for, um, reasons, and a couple of years later when he gets really depressed he tries to repair the console and game just so he can go back in and feel like Dr. Bravestone (The Rock) one more time.
Depressed, you say. Does the film do more with that? Is there any kind of message about mental health?
Yes and no. The idea of Spencer feeling depressed is never directly spelled out. He just clearly reaches a moment where he needs an escape, but that does turn into one of the film’s only true character arcs. Unlike Welcome to the Jungle, not all of the characters go on a true emotional journey this time. It’s pretty much just Spencer, his grandpa and his grandpa’s old buddy. Spencer’s journey is ultimately to remember that his friends are always there for him, and in those moments when he feels down rather than escape into himself he should reach out to them for help.
That’s nice, but what was that part about his grandpa and grandpa’s friend?
Oh, yeah. So, beyond the whole “we have snow scenes this time” of it all The Next Level’s real new wrinkle is that Spencer’s repair job isn’t fully successful. The game and the magic behind it is rejuvenated, but it’s malfunctioning, sucking in anyone in its vicinity and not letting them pick their avatar. When Spencer’s pals realize he’s missing and find the Jumanji game machine in his basement, they agree to go in and rescue him, but it all goes tits up. Other than Martha and her Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan) person, they all end up in completely different avatars this time. Heck, Bethany isn’t even pulled into the game at first. Instead, Grandpa Eddie and his old pal Milo (Danny Glover) get sucked in without even realizing what the heck is happening. When they wake up in the bodies of Dr. Smoldering Bravestone and Franklin Finbar (Kevin Hart) they, well, they have some questions, which is a convenient way for the film to keep explaining its premise for any of the non-video game players in the crowd.
Is that why The Rock and Kevin Hart crack so many old people jokes in the trailer?
Yep. Welcome to the Jungle got a lot of mileage out of its quasi-Freaky Friday situation. You had The Rock and Karen Gillan, two bonafide action stars, playing geeks trapped inside action star bodies, Kevin Hart playing a football jock trapped inside a short, surprisingly muscular dude who is ultimately only good at science and explodes whenever he eats cake, and Jack Black playing a ditzy teenage girl trapped inside….well, someone who looks like Jack Black. The Next Level is far more fluid with this. The avatar pairings are almost uniformly different, and Awkwafina even joins the film midway as a new avatar. Plus, one of the characters ends up trapped in a black horse that can talk but in a language understood only by the Kevin Hart avatar.
Is there any kind of message I can read into that? Is the Next Level secretly all about gender fluidity?
I’d more say The Next Level is all about making us laugh.
But didn’t you say there’s a mental health angle? And some kind of arc with the DeVito and Glover characters?
Yeah, there are definitely emotions involved. In the case of DeVito and Glover – or The Rock and Hart, really, since they play their avatars – it’s two stubborn old guys struggling to put the past behind them. In that way, The Next Level has a nice family film warmth to it. Mostly, though, Next Level is about the jokes. The Rock’s DeVito impression, in particular, is a constant source of amusement.
So why are so many reviewers saying it’s not as good as Welcome to the Jungle?
Because the story isn’t as complete this time and there are stretches where the filmmakers fall into playing the greatest hits, such as Martha/Ruby getting another showcase moment for her dance fighting set to Big Mountain’s cover of “Baby, I Love Your Way.” There is also the inescapable “these people really should have known better than to make this mistake again” problem that plagues so many sequels.
I’ve seen The Next Level described, in video game terms, as less a full sequel and more a story pack add-on, supplemental material that is clearly not as good or fully-fleshed out but still ultimately appreciated. That sounds about right, although it might be a bit too harsh. Freed from the constraints of universe building, The Next Level does jump straight to the good stuff meaning its probably easier to escape into and enjoy than Welcome to the Jungle.
Is there going to be another one?
Probably. Stick around for the mid-credits scene. It sets up which direction they’d go with it next time. Without spoiling too much, I’ll say that where this appears to be heading definitely makes Next Level feel like a transitional moment to something far more interesting, kind of like Spider-Man: Far From Home earlier this year. That doesn’t mean Next Level isn’t worth your time, though. It’s an enjoyable, family-friendly blockbuster alternative to everything else out there this Christmas season.
So, if you were on the fence about Next Level, did I convince you? If you’ve already seen it, what’d you think? Let me know in the comments.