Review: Jumanji: The Next Level

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PLOT: Depressed in the real world, angst-ridden teen Spencer (Alex Wolff) opts to return to the world of Jumanji, with his friends following close behind – bent on rescuing him. However, a mishap means they wind up with different avatars than last time, with Spencer’s cranky grandfather (Danny DeVito) now the towering Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson).

REVIEW: JUMANJI: THE NEXT LEVEL is what happens when you go back to the well once too often. The last film, JUMANJI: WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE, was a surprisingly solid reboot/continuation of the franchise and was likable and family-friendly enough to gross close to a billion dollars worldwide. When a movie is that successful, a sequel is a given but it seems like whatever juice they put into the last film to make it work is sorely missing here as its just more of the same.

In that vein, kids who loved the last one surely won’t be disappointed, with enough action and pratfalls to keep them entertained for two hours. But, older fans, who embraced the spark of the last one will be bitterly disappointed as to how this is a virtual remake, with all the lessons learned among the teen characters forgotten as this is just more of the same.

The big hook here is that the kids end up with different avatars, letting the older stars have a little fun with their roles. Where Jack Black had to play the “mean girl” Bethany last time, now he’s the black jock Fridge, meaning he’s now macho and constantly complains about being out of shape and white. It wears a little thin after a while. The most successful avatar switch is Kevin Hart, who winds up with the grandfatherly Danny Glover as his base. As a result, Hart gets to dial it way down and does an uncanny Glover at times. Who would have thought Kevin Hart would steal the movie by being so toned-down?

If Hart is admirably restrained; Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson is disastrous when he adopts the persona of Danny DeVito. Sure, that sounds funny on paper, but wow is The Rock not funny at all in this, with his constant whining less Danny DeVito more Joe Piscopo circa-WISE GUYS-like. That makes virtually his entire role pretty tough to swallow before a predictable but welcome twist in the third act. Spencer winds up as Awkwafina, who’s terrific throughout, first as the low-key Spencer and then a somewhat zanier character.

Of them all, only Karen Gillan’s Ruby Roundhouse winds up with the original avatar, allowing the crowd-pleasing character to continue without being mucked-up to much, save for a few brief body switches. It’s nice to have some continuity, and while switching up the avatars probably seemed like a novel approach, again, the movie is virtually ruined by Johnson’s non-stop mugging, a surprise as he’s usually (pun intended) rock solid.

As in the last one, the baddies are interchangeable, memorable only because this time “Game of Thrones” alum Rory McCann plays the role, although he’s so much like The Hound I’m surprised they didn’t give him the same scar. Running a shade over two hours, there’s lots of patented CGI action, although I’d wager the intensity was dialed down a bit from WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE, possibly to make it a little more cuddly for younger fans. The action scenes are full of eye candy but never really standout, with everything so over-the-top, such as an Ostrich chase, that the excitement level is nil.

Again, it bears repeating that this entrée into the JUMANJI world is pretty much just for kids. The last one was great family entertainment, but parents and older kids will likely be either bored silly or just annoyed by The Rock’s antics this time, with his performance a rare miscalculation for the star, although I assume the box office will still be excellent. In the end, this is fine for kids (it’ll probably freak them out less than CATS based on the trailer), but everyone else ought to just wait for another sci-fi blockbuster taking place in a galaxy far, far away that’s on the horizon in about a week.

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