Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle was a surprise hit in 2017, a sequel/soft reboot that actually manages to add to the lore of the original movie, such as changing the Jumanji game from a board game to a video game, while also standing on its own. Jumanji: The Next Level is the inevitable sequel, crassly capitalizing on the lightning strike of Jungle. The Next Level is not as good as Jungle, and it makes a couple nearly disastrous decisions, but it also proves how charming this cast is, especially the chemistry of Dwayne Johnson and Kevin Hart, and it has enough good laughs to enjoyably pass its (overlong) two hour runtime.
The Next Level sticks with the players from the first movie: Bethany (Madison Iseman), Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain), Martha (Morgan Turner), and Spencer (Alex Wolff). Now in college, the friends reunite over the holidays, only Spencer is missing. Feeling unsure of himself and losing confidence, Spencer is sulky and depressed and self-isolating. This is not a terrible setup. If The Next Level had imagined new game avatars for the players to meet them at this new point in their lives, this setup might have worked. But Level brings back the original avatars of Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan), Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson), Mouse Finbar (Kevin Hart), and Professor Oberon (Jack Black). There are, however, two new avatars: a thief, Ming (Awkwafina), and a horse.
The decision to keep the same avatars opens the door to Level’s two most egregious errors. The players are joined by Spencer’s grandfather, Eddie (Danny DeVito), and Eddie’s estranged friend and business partner, Milo (Danny Glover). The players, plus Milo and Eddie, return to Jumanji to find Spencer, who re-entered the game seeking Bravestone’s confidence. But with new avatars available, and more players in the game, not everyone ends up back in the same avatar. Martha still becomes Ruby Roundhouse, but this time Fridge is Professor Oberon, Milo becomes Finbar, and Danny DeVito is Bravestone.
Error number one is that Johnson’s Danny DeVito impression is AWFUL. I mean, you can barely stand to listen to it. And not only is that bad, but Johnson never gets a handle on playing an old man. As delightful as Johnson was in Jungle, he is inversely terrible in Level. At least Kevin Hart is holding up the side, not so much doing a Danny Glover impression, but nailing the slow, drawn-out way Milo talks. His slow-talking makes for a solid running gag.
Error number two—and this is SUCH a bad decision I am shocked it made it all the way to screen—is that Fridge inhabits Professor Oberon. That means Jack Black spends half the movie being a Black man. It’s not…great. Jack Black playing a teen girl is hilarious, Jack Black playing a young Black man and imitating the way he speaks has to be a hate crime somewhere. And it’s nothing against Jack, he does the best he can. But MY GOD, who thought that was a good idea? To make that concept work, you must COMMIT TO THE PREMISE. You must take that idea as far as it can go. Key & Peele could pull something like that off, or Dave Chappelle in his heyday. Tim Robinson could probably take it somewhere real weird. But a family-friendly holiday movie is not going to push that particular red button hard enough to make the concept work. It is just wildly uncomfortable every time Black opens his mouth. It is an acute, physical RELIEF when body-swapping is introduced through plot hokum just so the avatars can be sorted out and end the torment of both Johnson’s terrible DeVito impression and Jack Black talking like Fridge.
It is a testament to the parts of Level that work that the movie is still, despite its missteps, consistently funny, though it definitely depends upon viewers recognizing jokes from the first movie to get laughs. When Jumanji: The Next Level lands, it lands well, such as the subplot about the history between Milo and Eddie. There is some nice stuff there about what happens when one partner is ready to move on and the other isn’t. The main plot about Spencer and his confidence is not as riveting, as this is the arc that played out in the first movie. But Level still finds its way to some big laughs, and a nice resolution, and even though it is almost derailed by a couple terrible decisions, I bet most people have no trouble digesting Jumanji as an alternative for the non-Star Wars crowd this month.