One of the most inspired changes of 2017's Jumanji: Welcome To The Jungle was switching the medium of the game itself from a board game in the original novel and 1995 movie, to a video game. It opened up endless possibilities for the story, from creating a whole new world for the 'players' to inhabit, to the comedic potential of the video game avatars that the players inhabit.
As a result, we got Dwayne Johnson's buff action hero Smolder Bravestone controlled by a timid geek; a tough college football player stuck in the body of Kevin Hart's pint-sized, cake-allergic backpack carrier Mouse, and Jack Black channeling his inner high school cheerleader.
The video game medium also allowed for a much more linear 'level-based' story, in which the players have to get through various obstacles and challenges to get to the final prize. There were a few twists and turns along the way, of course, but it did make for a fairly entertaining movie. This sequel takes advantage of that same premise, while throwing in a few curve balls along the way.
The Next Level takes place a few years after the events the first movie. The four members of the original team have split up and are leading different lives far away from one another. Fridge (Ser'Darius Blain) is a college American football star, Bethany (Madison Iseman) is enjoying a gap year building houses for the needy in some tropical paradise and Martha (Morgan Turner) is having a blast in college.
Meanwhile, Spencer (Alex Wolff) is attending college in New York and working as a supermarket attendant, and feeling even more down and insecure than ever, to the point where he even thinks he is not good enough to be Martha's boyfriend anymore.
Coming home for the holidays, he decides to fix the Jumanji console (which Fridge supposedly destroyed in the first film) and inadvertently gets sucked in again. When his friends go back in to rescue him, however, something goes wrong, and Bethany winds up getting left behind while Spencer's grandfather Eddie (Danny Devito) and his friend Milo (Danny Glover) are sucked in instead.
While Martha retains her Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillen) avatar, Fridge is now the cartographer Shelly (Black), Milo is now Mouse, while Eddie is now in control of Dr Bravestone. To make things worst, the game is not the same one they completed before.
The most fun part of this new Jumanji franchise is watching the four avatars channeling the personalities of their players, and this time around, the highlight is watching Johnson as a crotchety old man. While Johnson is best known as a major action star these days, his comedic talent is just as big as his biceps, and he unsurprisingly has most of the big laughs here. Hart and Black also stand out for playing against type once more.
While the swapping of characters and the addition of new ones (Awkafina's Ming stands out the most) help to keep things somewhat fresh, the story doesn't deviate much from the level-clearing linear-ness of the first. With the novelty factor gone, the big action sequences now seem kind of tame and by the numbers. And don't even get me started on how one-dimensional Rory McCann's new bad guy, Jurgen The Brutal, is.
While The Next Level remains a pretty entertaining addition to the franchise, it seems to have become a victim of its own simple video game premise. As it is, this may be called 'The Next Level', but in video game terms, it's more like a bonus round rather than an actual next level.
Fun, but more of a bonus round than a next level