Don’t let anyone tell you that 2017’s Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle was “a surprise hit.” While the scale of its success might have been a little unexpected — apparently it is the highest-grossing domestic release in Sony Pictures history, a fact I find to be hilarious — those of us who watched that trailer before every other movie for months foresaw that the concept was a winning one: Watch a quartet of cliché high schoolers straight out of The Breakfast Club (the Nerd, the Jock, the Outcast, the Debutante) get turned into the Rock, Kevin Hart, Karen Gillan, and Jack Black! Now watch them battle deadly video-game creatures in a fantasy jungle! It’s a cute idea, conjoined to a group of likable actors with distinct, firmly established personae. The average movie star is not too different from a video-game avatar, when you think about it. They have defined strengths and limitations, and are presented for our entertainment with a series of escalating, albeit predictable challenges. Those info cards that pop up at regular intervals in the Jumanji films might as well accompany these actors on their other projects as well.
If the first Jumanji (okay, it wasn’t actually the first Jumanji; the real first Jumanji was absolutely dreadful) represented the ideal iteration of that aforementioned delightful concept — the version we hoped we’d get — then its sequel, Jumanji: The Next Level, represents the version we might have dreaded, the tired and only modestly funny one that just coasts on its proved, no-longer-novel premise. Oh, there are a few mild twists this time around. Our heroes get sucked back into the deadly magic video game after their pal Spencer (Alex Wolff) goes missing inside it, and this time some of the avatars are switched around. Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain) becomes Jack Black, while two new unwitting additions, Spencer’s bed-ridden grandfather Eddie (played by Danny DeVito) and his old pal Milo (Danny Glover), transform into the Rock and Kevin Hart. That latter bit is good for a few laughs: Hart does a nice job mimicking Glover’s deliberate, laid-back way of speaking. The Rock does what he can pretending to be Danny DeVito, which is funny in theory, but the idea works better later in the game, when DeVito becomes cat burglar Awkwafina (long story), whose no-bullshit mannerisms are already a few degrees closer to his slouchy urban wiseguy shtick.
Anyway, alongside looking for Spencer, there’s another quest this time — saving the something something jewel from the evil clutches of a warlord named Jurgen the Brutal (Rory McCann) — and it is treated with exactly the level of pro forma, box-checking apathy you’d expect, which is a shame, because if you’ve got a warlord villain named Jurgen the Brutal, you should probably have some fun with the idea. Imagine the meal Monty Python would have made out of Jurgen and his band of scruffy, grouchy roughnecks. But alas, it’s a given that in our day and age these movies will always hew closer to the action/video-game end of the spectrum than the spoofy-comedy end. (Let’s face it: They make more money that way.) But even taking that into account, 2manji feels kind of lifeless. A big melee at the end is useless, and while a big set piece involving a bunch of hanging bridges and an army of vicious super-baboons is occasionally fun, it feels more like we’re watching a VFX demo reel than anything involving inspiration or wit. The best part is still all the different ways characters can die, since it’s a video game and they can come back a couple of times. I laughed when Jack Black was eaten by a giant snake. I laughed even harder when the Rock was positively demolished by an ostrich. I’d gladly watch Jumanji 3: Faces of Death.