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Jumanji: The Next Level
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by Jay Seaver

"Levels up."
3 stars

I was probably a little harsh on the last film in this series when it came out, considering that I found myself looking forward to the sequel as it's trailers appeared (although I didn't exactly feel a need to re-watch it before seeing the new one). "The Next Level" is a better movie in part because, while "Welcome to the Jungle" wasn't great, it got all the explanation and set-up out of the way. This time around, the filmmakers know their strengths and weaknesses, and even if they're not taking chances, they know what they're doing.

It starts with the four kids from the last movie - Spencer (Alex Wolff), Martha (Morgan Turner), Fridge (Ser'Darius Blain), and Bethany (Madison Iseman) - graduated from high school and in their freshman year of college (or a gap year for Bethany), getting back together on Christmas break. Spencer's grandfather Eddie (Danny DeVito) is also staying at his house, recuperating from hip surgery, grumpily avoiding his old friend Milo (Danny Glover), who he hasn't talked to for twenty years. That's why, when Spencer apparently recovers and repairs the game system that sucked them into an adventure game last time, Milo and Eddie are sucked in along with Martha and Fridge, while Bethany has to find Alex (Colin Hanks), the man they rescued last time, for help getting back in, where almost all the identities are scrambled: Martha is still the kick-ass fighter Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan), but Fridge became schlubby professor Sherry Oberon (Jack Black), while Eddie is the muscular Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson), and Milo the equipment-toting Mouse Finbar (Kevin Hart), with new player character Ming Fleetfoot (Awkwafina) and pilot Seaplane (Nick Jonas) showing up later.

The biggest strength of the previous film was the cast, and that's still the case here, perhaps even more so: The way the script swaps them around and gives them new things to do turns out to be a hoot, with Dwayne Johnson playing out Eddie's pugnaciousness (he continues to recognize that he's at his funniest playing as far against type as possible), Kevin Hart doing the opposite, Jack Black continuing to be a good sport, and Karen Gillan managing to hold everything together as the put-upon rock of the group. It's kind of a bummer that the film isn't set up to give the audience more of actual Danny Devito and Danny Glover, because it is a ton of fun to watch those two pros work. It's no surprise that Awkwafina turns out to be a great addition, but considering that she's got roughly one minute to sell the audience on her playing someone familiar, she manages exceptionally well - and she's got to do it twice!

The script by director Jake Kasdan and returning writers Jeff Pinkner & Scott Rosenberg is rough in spots but is also on much more solid ground than the last movie. It's amusingly impatient with the necessity of explaining video game stuff to the older folks in the audience (something which occasionally killed the first movie), for instance, and has a much more solid base in both Spencer's not having the easiest time of starting from scratch in New York after having finally figured things out in high school and his friends pulling together to help. A little familiarity and centering the character work explicitly on life changes for both the kids and seniors does wonders for actually making a viewer invest a bit more.

That tightened focus on the group means that the quest for another gem fades into the background, with Rory McCann's villain even more of a non-entity than Bobby Cannavale's in the first. There's a bit less action this time around, to the point where the characters mostly get their "life counts" down to the point of actual peril via various slapstick accidents. That's not so bad; the effects are a bit better but not always quite a perfect balance between real and video game physics, and elaborate action has never really been Kasdan's calling card. A couple of the big pieces are fun, although not particularly enhanced by the 3D conversion as they could have been.

This fourth film in the series (or second, or third, depending on what you call "the series") doesn't quite live up to the potential of the neat ideas they went for in "Welcome to the Jungle", although it's often better than its predecessor. It's an enjoyable-enough couple of hours, even if it still gives one the sense that it could be a little better.

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originally posted: 12/16/19 04:55:58
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  13-Dec-2019 (PG-13)
  DVD: 17-Mar-2020


  DVD: 17-Mar-2020

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