‘Jumanji’ stagnates on its ‘Next Level’

Jumanji: The Next Level remains fairly monochrome, but takes us out of the jungle and into the desert and then the mountains with a dark village in between. It’s usually all one color on the screen, but it’s not just green the whole time, which is a nice change. Images courtesy Sony Pictures Releasing.

7/10 There’s a great deal of potential in these new Jumanji films, but Jumanji: The Next Level doesn’t quite live up to it. 

A year and change later, the four heroes of Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, who remained close friends, have gone their separate ways to college. Most are successful and happy, but Spencer Gilpin (Alex Wolff) is suffering at NYU. After inhabiting the body of Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson), and experiencing the confidence that came with it, his intelligence, technical skills and being an extremely handsome guy in his own right just don’t compare. Home for winter break, instead of reuniting with his comrades, Gilpin rebuilds the enchanted video game and enters Jumanji to experience that confidence again.

His worried teammates, Anthony “Fridge” Johnson (Ser’Darius Blain), Bethany Walker (Madison Iseman) and girlfriend Martha Kaply (Morgan Turner) discover what Gilpin’s done and go after him, but inadvertently suck in his grandfather Eddie (Danny DeVito) and Eddie’s old business partner Milo Walker (Danny Glover). The character selection is wonky, which becomes a huge problem when Eddie Gilpin, who has no idea where he is or what’s going on, is assigned the vital Bravestone character.

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle didn’t make a giant cultural mark, and that’s kind of weird. It’s an excellent movie, and it spent seven weeks at either no. 1 or no. 2 at the box office, overtaking the much more culturally relevant Star Wars: The Last Jedi for three weeks in January. It made $404.5 million domestic, which makes it Sony pictures’ highest grossing movie at home ever, and $962.1 million worldwide, which is good for no. 49 on the all-time chart. This is the 49th highest grossing movie ever and was beloved by critics and audiences, and it’s just not talked about.

Spencer Gilpin is at first trapped in the body of a new player character, burglar Ming Fleetfood (Awkwafina), a development that seemed the most primed to explore or solve his lack of confidence, but instead he kind of mopes the whole time. Awkwafina gives probably the best performance of the player character cast, matching both Spencer and Eddie Gilpin with great savvy.

That’s a problem for Jumanji: The Next Level, which has a weirdly high barrier of entry. The movie establishes the new characters, Eddie Gilpin and Milo Walker, but it’s impossible to know what’s going on with the younger characters if you haven’t seen, or in my case don’t firmly remember, the first film. Maybe writer/director/producer Jake Kasdan thought it would be too much pipe-laying, and maybe Sony thought that the existing audience was enough – who needs to pull new viewers in when you made $400 million with the existing ones? – but it’s a strange weakness to be left in a mass-appeal movie like this. 

The immediate and potentially enduring appeal of these Jumanji movies is the opportunity for Johnson and Kevin Hart, who have wonderful onscreen chemistry, to routinely come back into the same setup playing completely different characters as different people assume them as avatars, and it’s clear that The Next Level understands this appeal and either they or Kasdan wanted to play old farts next. The silliness is obvious throughout the production, with the introduction of character-switching mechanics that allow almost every in-game actor to play multiple characters at different points, and there’s even a flashback that sees Johnson in an over-the-top wig and mustache as his character’s own father. 

There’s obvious potential here, but it comes off as an incomplete skit. Johnson and Hart try valiantly to emulate DeVito and Glover, but it’s mostly limited to vocal impressions, which drop in certain instances. 

Most of the comedy is aimed at making fun of Eddie and Milo for being so old. I hate old people as much as anyone, but it’s really mean-spirited and exploitative to make fun of someone for being helpless in a situation they have no understanding of and didn’t wittingly enter. 

The much more interesting concepts related to Spencer Gilpin’s story don’t really come up. Welcome to the Jungle was a wonderful expression of millennial impostor syndrome, even if it didn’t really lean into that reading, but The Next Level makes that even more explicit while continuing to not really address it, and raises some interesting questions about the tie between body and identity in general. If you can be transferred into a different body, as in these movies, do you become a different person? All the returning characters feel an obvious ownership over the bodies they inhabited in the first movie. What does it say about Gilpin and Kaply’s relationship if they’re only attracted to each other in the bodies of Bravestone and Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan)? 

Various parts of the movie don’t fit together the way they need to. Eddie and Milo frequently saunter off away from the rest of the group to hash out their personal beef. Spencer Gilpin’s depression and crisis of confidence is necessarily siloed. 

After catching no end of flack for Karen Gillan’s skimpy costume, The Next Level takes it to the mountains and covers everyone up in winter gear.

In the mechanics of the game, with each character having three lives but potentially dying permanently if they run out, Jumanji has things both ways — it can cartoon-logic its characters out of sticky situations while maintaining very real danger closer to the game’s end. In Welcome to the Jungle, this saw characters dying constantly throughout the movie, but in The Next Level, deaths are sudden and barely related to the rest of the game. Most of them come in a cluster in a transparent attempt to raise the stakes just before the climax. 

This is a decent movie and a fantastic series, and the step down in story structure and missed thematic opportunities do nothing to diminish its exuberance and silliness, but it’s noticeable. I saw this with a full house, and the laughs were sparse. This movie needs to be a greater percentage of what it can be. 

Much like Welcome to the Jungle, Jumanji: The Next Level has very quietly been a smash hit, opening at more than $60 million while most of the movie media world seems focused on litigating the real-world stories of Bombshell and Richard Jewell. Jumanji will be crushed next weekend by Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker — and probably Cats, which I’m much more excited for personally — but it should hold well into January. Maybe Sony finally has the cash cow here they’ve been looking for for so long. 

Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate. If you liked this post, you can donate to Reel Entropy here. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook and reach out to me at reelentropy@gmail.com.

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