Despite having one of the most annoying trailers of the year, the third Jumanji film is a substantial improvement over its predecessor. Indeed, Dwayne Johnson‘s Danny DeVito impersonation is nowhere near as bad as it initially looked and Kevin Hart’s Danny Glover may be a minor miracle. But perhaps it’s easier to relax with the formula once all of the exposition is out of the way. Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle felt overly concerned with explaining its major differences with the original Robin Williams movie. As such, it wound up looking like a mediocre video game. The Next Level does it better. There’s a car racing level, a platforming level, a puzzle level, and a Metal Gear Solid-style stealth action level.
Despite the previous adventure very nearly costing him his life, college freshman Spencer (Alex Wolff) feels alone and dispirited at his minimum-wage job. Not to mention insecure at his sort-of girlfriend Martha’s (Morgan Turner) seemingly very-happening Instagram feed. So he longs to once again be ubermensch Dr. Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson) inside the Jumanji video game. It doesn’t quite work out like he expects, so his friends follow him in to ensure he actually has a shot at surviving. Because the game is apparently into tough love, it gives Spencer a new avatar with his exact same life skills. And it also sucks in bickering elderly ex-friends Eddie (DeVito), who happens to be Spencer’s grandfather, and Milo (Glover), his ex-business partner with a grudge. Nothing like a little mortal peril against killer ostriches to mend fences.
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Adding to the fun this time, all the in-game avatars save Karen Gillan’s Ruby Roundhouse (still Martha) and Nick Jonas’ Jefferson McDonough get controlled by different people. This gives most of the leads new room to play. Jack Black’s Prof. Oberon goes from precious Bethany to frustrated Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain), while Bravestone is clueless as Eddie, and Hart’s “Mouse” Finbar a befuddled Milo. Later, even more wrinkles occur as characters and players are added and find ways to switch bodies, including into a new thief avatar played by Awkwafina.
Speaking of — Awkwafina may well earn an Oscar-nomination this year for The Farewell. But there’s a scene in this movie where she has to act an emotionally poignant scene opposite a CG horse. While pretending to be a completely different actor. And she sells the hell out of it. It will never win her awards, but it might just be proof that she can do anything.
The sense that Jumanji itself might be a sort of benevolent, tough-love Phantom Tollbooth of sorts feels like a new, or at least newly emphasized, development. Even the exploding cake feels more justified in that respect, as a diet incentive for Fridge. Also, the game world’s potential as a land of eternal youth takes on a new meaning with seniors involved. The franchise has yet to actually reveal if the loss of that final in-game life really leads to permanent death. But I’m starting to suspect not. Since a further sequel tease mid-credits suggests another direction for the next one, we may find out soon enough. Can it reconcile good intent with the very first film’s 30-year imprisonment of Robin Williams?
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Not that it matters too much, since you surely weren’t expecting Game of Thrones. Though the Hound (Rory McCann) shows up as the game’s final boss. As with any two-hour movie that has to represent the kind of video game which would take much longer to play, the actual game in itself feels short. But the slightly exaggerated fierce animals are wonderful threats. And the rope-bridge platform level (with mandrills!) might be the best big-screen level of Mario Maker ever. Jake Kasdan’s directing has improved substantially, and the pace never lags. It takes tactical respites when necessary for pacing, but that’s different. The 3D version, incidentally, is good but unnecessary.
While I’m partial to the more Amblin-horror approach of the original Jumanji and the semi spin-off Zathura, The Next Level gives me hope for the series’ current incarnation. Not to mention Kevin Hart’s career. Mostly forced out of his comfort zone and usual persona, the comedian’s take on Danny Glover as a rambling raconteur stays consistently great. With more character work like this, he could win back viewers tired of the usual high-speed shtick. Moreover, if Jake Kasdan’s ability to string setpieces together keeps similarly getting better, this franchise might gain even more fans.