Jumanji: The Next Level has laughs and just the right amount of Hart

BY NEIL MORRIS, CN+R Film Critic
Posted 12/13/19

In assessing the latest cinematic incarnations of “Jumanji” it’s a mistake (one I made two years ago) to judge them strictly through the prism of action-adventure films. They lack vivid visual …

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Jumanji: The Next Level has laughs and just the right amount of Hart

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Kevin Hart, Dwayne Johnson, Karen Gillan and Jack Black star in 'Jumanji: The Next Level.'
Kevin Hart, Dwayne Johnson, Karen Gillan and Jack Black star in 'Jumanji: The Next Level.'
Photo courtesy of Columbia Pictu
Posted

In assessing the latest cinematic incarnations of “Jumanji” it’s a mistake (one I made two years ago) to judge them strictly through the prism of action-adventure films. They lack vivid visual effects, compelling combat, and formidable foils. Their pacing is fragmented, and the plots are scattershot.

But “Jumanji: The Next Level,” like “Welcome to the Jungle” before it, is more an effects-driven coming-of-age comedy revolving around the themes of family and friendship and carried by the camaraderie of its characters.

The quartet of classmates who bonded through their shared misadventures in the Jumanji video game have moved on with life after high school. Bethany (Madison Iseman) is living in Costa Rica, while Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain), Martha (Morgan Turner), and Spencer (Alex Wolff) are attending college. The four plan to meet while back home for the holidays, but Spencer is feeling overwhelmed at NYU and undervalued at his part-time pharmacy job. Spencer longs for the heady confidence he felt playing adventurer Smolder Bravestone in the Jumanji universe. Sp when he visits his family, including his grandpa Eddie (Danny DeVito), Spencer reboots the Jumanji console and returns into the game.

When Spencer’s friends discover what he’s done, they reluctantly decide to follow him back into Jumanji. However, their teleportation inadvertently sweeps up Eddie and his estranged friend Milo (Danny Glover). Eddie and Milo once ran a local restaurant together before falling out, and Milo had just dropped by to share a cup of coffee and some other distressing news.

The participants once again inhabit avatars from the Jumanji game, but “The Next Level” mixes matters up. Martha remains comely commando Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan), but Fridge now occupies the body of portly cartographer Sheldon Oberon, played by Jack Black with a mild blaccent that manages to remain safely inoffensive. Eddie is now Bravestone, which Dwayne Johnson voices as DeVito’s grumpy, New Hampshirite. Meanwhile, Milo is now diminutive zoologist Franklin Finbar, which Kevin Hart voices like, well, an impersonation of old Danny Glover. It’s a stroke of minor genius by Hart and director Jake Kasden, who finally shelve Hart’s well-worn schtick as a flibbertigibbet by slowing down his delivery and just allowing his wit to carry the load.

Spencer eventually shows up under the guise of new avatar Ming Fleetfoot, an Asian cat burglar played by Awkwafina. Awkwafina able channels Spencer’s timid insecurity until some late-film role-switching gives her a go at a DeVito caricature that’s just as amusing as Johnson’s.

The storyline remains as fragmented as its video game construct — something about another gemstone that needs rescuing from a nondescript baddie in order to save the realm and escape the game before the avatars lose their allotted lives. And the wonky action sequences succeed only as vehicles to propel the hilarity. “The Next Level’s” charm resides in both the evolving rapport between its main characters and the comedic adroitness of Johnson, Hart, Gillan, Black, and now Awkwafina. An end credits scene presages the setting for the next sequel, and even after two go-rounds it’s a world you won’t mind revisiting.

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