I know that a lot of people loved the previous Jumanji movie. Or more specifically, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle. Not only the movie was well-received by most critics and general audiences, it even made a boatload of money to become one of Sony’s biggest box-office hits of all-time. And yet, I was one of the minorities who found that movie squandered its would-be promising transition from the 1995 original’s board-game setup to a more ambitious video-game environment.
Which is why I have little hope when the studio decided to greenlit the inevitable sequel in the first place. And given the way the formula worked so well in the previous instalment, returning director Jake Kasdan could have opted the tried-and-tested path by simply repeating everything with only a few minor tweaks here and there. But I was surprised that Jumanji: The Next Level turns out to be a better-than-expected sequel.
Before I elaborate further, here’s a brief synopsis about the sequel: When the gang (Morgan Turner’s Martha, Ser’Darius Blain’s Fridge and Madison Iseman’s Bethany) finds out their best friend Spencer (Alex Wolff) went missing, their only hope to locate his whereabouts is getting themselves sucked into the video-game world of Jumanji once again. Only this time, their usual avatars — Dwayne Johnson’s Dr Bravestone, Jack Black’s Professor Sheldon, Kevin Hart’s Franklin and Karen Gillan’s Ruby Roundhouse — got all mixed up and even the game has changed dramatically.
While I admit Jumanji: The Next Level does take some time to find a proper footing over the course of its somewhat sluggish first act, the sequel manages to regain its momentum once the adult avatars from the previous movie are re-introduced. And this is where the fun really starts: Instead of watching them rehashing their same roles all over again, Kasdan alongside his co-writers Jeff Pinkner and Scott Rosenberg chose to incorporate a better idea of messing up each of the avatar’s personalities.
This leads to some unexpectedly hilarious changes, beginning with Dwayne Johnson gamely channelling Danny DeVito’s role of Spencer’s cranky grandpa Eddie Gilpin. It was nevertheless a refreshing change of pace seeing Dwayne Johnson not playing his same old self just like most of his mediocre movies these days. Kevin Hart is another MVP for this sequel’s much-improved ensemble, as he sure has a field day impersonating Danny Glover’s Milo Walker a.k.a. Eddie’s best friend role right down to the veteran actor’s speech pattern.
The rest of the cast is just as amusing, with Jack Black playing Fridge’s unlikely new avatar role of Professor Sheldon instead of Bethany from the previous movie. Karen Gillan is looking great as the Lara Croft-like Ruby Roundhouse and she has a particularly memorable moment involving a funny switcheroo between her and Jack Black’s Professor Sheldon.
Jumanji: The Next Level also introduces some notable additions to the existing cast including Awkwafina’s burglar role as Ming. Both screen veterans Danny DeVito and Danny Glover, in the meantime, made quite an impression playing two peevish odd couples as former best friends-turned-enemies.
Kudos also go to Kasdan and his co-writers for raising more stakes in this sequel — something that is sorely missing from the previous movie. Even both of the CGI animals and action setpieces are improved by leaps and bounds, with two of the sequel’s biggest highlights involving a desert chase between the dune buggies and a herd of ostriches. Then, there’s the thrillingly-staged action setpiece where the gang has to survive the troop of angry mandrills while leaping from one hanging wooden bridge to another. The latter almost reminds me of a scene straight out from an Indiana Jones or Pirates of the Caribbean movie.
Some of the flaws still retain in Jumanji: The Next Level, notably a repeat of Karen Gillan’s same cringey fight-dancing moment while Dwayne Johnson’s trademark smouldering look every now and then tends to grow tired. A few shortcomings aside, Jake Kasdan has done an overall good job turning things around by giving Jumanji: The Next Level plenty of good surprises and fresh ideas, all without botching its potential like he did the last time.
Remember not to leave your seat once the end credits start rolling. Stick around for a while and you’ll be probably delighted the way Kasdan chose to set up for another sequel during the mid-credits scene.