Live long enough, and you see your beloved childhood films grow into franchises in their own right. As time goes on, and the box office gods make their pronouncements, these franchises eventually spawn sequels-to-sequels that hew more closely to their immediate predecessors than to the source material. Yes, as Danny DeVito’s cranky Grandpa Eddie says in Jumanji: The Next Level, “getting old sucks.”
Moreso than another pretty gem, that’s the puzzle at the center of the second installment in the Jumanji-as-video-game movies: How do we grow into new people, appreciating the wisdom of experience, without mourning the people we used to be? What do we do if we think we liked those old people more? As with the 2017 sequel/reboot, there’s surprising thematic depth that is nonetheless under-served by a jungle adventure that’s just not thrilling enough to make an adequate contrast.
To wit: It’s not a jungle adventure anymore. A new baddie, Jurgen the Brutal (Rory McCann a.k.a. Game of Thrones’ The Hound) has snatched the Falcon Jewel from a random Jumanji tribe, plunging a decent part of the world into eternal winter. No NPC needs to say that “winter is coming,” because it’s already here, complete with a climactic fight scene taking place in Jurgen’s arctic fortress.
And who will fight the fearsome killer? Our returning foursome of stereotypical video game characters with non-stereotypical weaknesses (Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Karen Gillan, Jack Black)—but the twist this time is who’s playing.
Because in the year or so since the events of Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, Spencer (Alex Wolff), Martha (Morgan Turner), Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain), and Bethany (Madison Iseman) have all graduated high school. Home for their first winter break of freshman year, they’re flying high off new cities, new friends, and new gap year backpacking adventures… all except for Spencer, who misses when he was Dr. Smolder Bravestone. Before even waiting for the sound of drumbeats, he digs up the game that they supposedly destroyed and jumps back in.
Seriously—the first movie wanted to convince us that people would care enough to save the world of Jumanji, a shit-eating grin in game form; and now we are asked to suspend our disbelief long enough to go along with the idea that someone would willingly return.
But once Spencer’s trapped in there until game over, of course his friends—who have all been happily group-texting while he’s been suffering what seems like the worst case of seasonal affective disorder at NYU—follow him in. Along with Grandpa Eddie (DeVito) and his ex-business partner Milo (Danny Glover)… who get randomly assigned the Bravestone and Mouse Finbar avatars, respectively.
It’s a slow start, with the majority of the jokes revolving around two elderly men delighting in their buttery joints and ability to defeat the laws of physics, bounding from jungle to dunes to winterscape while the exasperated young’uns have to constantly remind them that they’re in a game and they will die if they don’t win. Johnson and Hart are clearly having a blast putting on the husky accents of their elders, though Hart’s is the more masterful imitation of the slow-talking Glover; Johnson and DeVito both mostly just sound like a stereotypical Jewish grandpa.
However, things begin to pick up once the group locates new avatar Ming, a cat-burglar played with wonderful pluck by Awkwafina. I won’t spoil who winds up as whom, except to say that I can’t decide if the filmmakers dodged an excellent opportunity in having Ming and Ruby Roundhouse profess their feelings for each other… or if this would have just wound up as awkward girl-on-girl. This time around, every player has to confront their discomfort with their avatar, whether that’s Fridge feeling that all of his IRL weightlifting has abandoned him and he’s that much closer to death, or Spencer negating all of his character’s skills with his own neuroses.
As the crew chases vague clues across a bazaar that seems to combine Morocco, Spain, and… 1920s Chicago?… all in one place, Jurgen plots world domination (or at least, Jumanji domination) with his bauble. Hmm—Jaguar Jewel, Falcon Jewel… is the Jumanji franchise setting up its own Infinity Saga?
Clearly, the story doesn’t matter—not to viewers, and often not even to the characters, considering how blithely they manage to lose two-thirds of their lives before they even get to the boss battle. The first film riffed surprisingly well on video-game tropes and had decent stakes. The Next Level has obviously been constructed for the audience who already loved the first, with more emphasis on callbacks than new subversions. That said, I did cheer when the dulcet strains of Ruby’s favorite song—”Baby I Love Your Way”—began to play during a key moment.
The one place where The Next Level is surprisingly deft is where it comes to its newest players. Eddie and Milo’s business partnership and friendship, both broken by the same event that’s so far in the past as to be ancient history, flourishes again in Jumanji. At the same time, the younger cast grapple with what happens when you have this incredible adventure together and then drift apart in your real lives. Just as they will have fewer and fewer holiday reunions as time goes on, who’s to say how many times they will wind up playing this game together again?
“I wanted to feel like I could do anything,” Spencer says by way of apology, and it resonates. Who wouldn’t want to return to the moment when you felt like The Rock, full of bravura and smolder? But as Spencer and his friends relearn, it’s not about the individual character whose body you step into—it’s about the team who logs on beside you.
Just as Grandpa Eddie has changed his tune by the end of the movie, the audience might consider aging more of a double-edged sword, balancing the rewards of knowledge gained with the memories and past selves to which you can never return (or maybe only briefly).
But you didn’t necessarily need this movie to tell you that, or at least not in theaters. It’s peak “watch in a friend’s basement over holiday break” entertainment, but nothing revelatory.