Nowadays, you are perhaps feeling a little defensive about the franchises of your youth. The Lion King is a weird CGI experiment in ouroboros. Ghostbusters is going to be a very serious drama starring, um, Finn Wolfhard. And Jumanji, precious Jumanji, that beloved 1995 Robin Williams vehicle, has been revived not once but twice now, and foisted into the hands of the Rock. And Kevin Hart. And … a Jonas brother? Jesus, or at least his inner child, wept.
I know, friend, because I was once like you. I was sent by this very website to see the first Jumanji reboot, 2017’s Welcome to the Jungle, and I did not like it at all. I looked for traces of ’Manji DNA and found little: the name, the drumbeats, the word “game,” and pretty much nothing else, which was both surprising and offensive to perhaps even dozens of us loyalists. Most people, though, didn’t mind one bit: Welcome to the Jungle grossed nearly $1 billion internationally, good for fifth place in the box office that year. The movie was “awesome,” quoth my colleague and noted traitor Miles Surrey, and “leaves you with a warm, fuzzy feeling that comes from the movie’s very earnest heart.” Ugh.
So it is not without some genuine shock that I convey this latest development: The franchise’s latest installment, Jumanji: The Next Level, out Friday in a megaplex near you, is a whole lot of fun. Count the factors in my conversion: a couple of years’ additional wisdom (unlikely) or fatigue (likelier), an extra-large blue Icee, and Next Level just being the no-worries action-fest it was always meant to be.
Our four teens—dork (Alex Wolff’s Spencer), nerd (Morgan Turner’s Martha), jock (Ser’Darius Blain’s Fridge), and queen bee (Madison Iseman’s Bethany)—have emerged from the first movie’s video game jungle and reentered the boomerang-less expanse of normal life, which, now that the heroes have started college, features such terrors as the dorms at NYU and restocking duties at Duane Reade. (Van Pelt could only dream of such suffering.) But the four learned soooo much together—Bethany just spent the past two months building houses abroad! Or at least three of them did: Spencer, who has spent his first semester of college moping on social media and might be a budding incel, misses being the Rock, and especially getting the girl (that is, Martha, who now goes by “M”). So he does what a sequel mandates, and digs the cursed game out of a closet.
But here, blessedly, there are a couple of curveballs. One: Spencer’s grandpa, played by—I nearly fell out of my plush movie theater chair—Danny DeVito, has stopped by, as has his grandpa’s pal, Danny Glover’s Milo, and both are ultimately sucked into the game, as well. Two: The movie has some fun shuffling around who appears as which avatar, and, given the larger cast, introduces some new ones (namely Awkwafina). The Next Level takes for granted that you’ve seen the previous installment, so it speeds through explanations of the game’s rules, sparing poor bloggers from having to engage with whether the sequel sufficiently honors the ’95 Jumanji’s legacy by bypassing it altogether. (The drumbeats remain.)
Unfortunately for people with ears, it’s DeVito who ends up reincarnated as the Rock. But there’s no dubbing, so Dwayne Johnson spends the near entirety of The Next Level doing his very best DeVito impression. His very best, however, is in fact very, very bad, and so you are signing up for a couple of hours of the Rock telling you that he “hopes this lettah finds ya” and to “get outta he-ah” and generally complaining about the premise of “Ju-MAAAAN-ji.” Tough look for our guy.
Non-rhoticity aside, though, The Next Level is a silly, and weirdly beautiful, joyride. The flimsiness of the premise means there’s nothing to stop the movie from a bonkers tour of biomes: from tropics to desert to snowy forest to some kind of floating island/drawbridge situation that is part Harry Potter and part Avatar and will make your palms sweat a not-socially-acceptable amount if you possess even the mildest fear of heights. There’s a sacred gemstone and a big bad—Rory McCann, a.k.a. the Hound from Game of Thrones—who looks and sounds exactly like a video game villain, which here is a positive. That it took them this long to blast “Welcome to the Jungle” over the characters’ slow-motion march through the elements comes as a surprise, but it doesn’t make it any less of a dumb, happy thrill when they do.
The Next Level seems to be at least a little aware of its maybe limited welcome, or at least how bizarre its first installment being a megahit was. “Can we all agree,” Spencer asks at one point, “let’s never go back there?” Agreed—this was probably enough. But if this movie makes money, too, it’s hard to imagine Sony keeping the hyenas chained up for long.