JUMANJI: THE NEXT LEVEL (2019)
The gang is back but the game has changed. As they return to rescue one of their own, the players will have to brave parts unknown from arid deserts to snowy mountains...
Jake Kasdan’s Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (2017) was a smart way to modernise the premise of Joe Johnston’s beloved Jumanji (1995), that itself loosely adapted Chris Van Allsburg’s 1981 children’s book, by switching the enchanted board game for a video game. And whereas Jumanji concerned jungle creatures escaping from a game into the real world, Welcome to the Jungle had a group of teenagers sucked into a photoreal game to play as various cartoony avatars. The movie itself was entertaining but never quite managed to soar in terms of VFX-fuelled incidents and comedy, with all the best moments spoiled in the marketing, but after grossing $962M it’s no surprise Kasdan’s back with Jumanji: The Next Level.
Does this latest adventure indeed take things to the next level? To an extent, but not really. Kasdan (who now helped co-write the script with Jeff Pinkner and Scott Rosenberg) doesn’t stray too much from the established formula. Some of the same characters get sucked back into the Jumanji video game, where they have to find another trinket (a ‘Falcon Jewel’ that can end a terrible drought), which is in the possession of another villain (a warlord called Jurgen the Brutal, played by Game of Thrones’ Rory McCann), and hilarity ensues through a procession of beautiful locations filled with dangerous CGI animals and adventure genre tropes. This means some of Welcome to the Jungle’s freshness has fizzled away, which is to be expected in a sequel, but The Next Level manages to find a few tweaks and alterations to keep things mildly fresh.
The biggest and most noticeable change is who’s playing the game. Spencer (Alex Wolff) is visiting his elderly grandfather Eddie (Danny DeVito) after hip surgery, together with Eddie’s old friend Milo (Danny Glover), when he gets sucked back into the Jumanji video game he’s revealed to have scavenged after they disposed of it last time. Spencer’s friend Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain), Martha (Morgan Turner), and Bethany (Madison Iseman) later investigate, realising what’s happened, so decide to reenter Jumanji to rescue their friend, unwittingly loading the game and sucking in Eddie and Milo but leaving Bethany behind this time.
The shakeup of who’s playing who powers much of this sequel’s first half. Martha returns as athletic “Ruby Roundhouse” (Karen Gillan), but now Fridge is map-reading “Professor Shelly Oberon” (Jack Black), with curmudgeon Eddie transformed into strong “Dr Smolder Bravestone” (Dwayne Johnson), and slow-talking Milo is trapped inside the younger body of zoologist “Franklin Finbar” (Kevin Hart). If the previous movie’s wish fulfilment fantasy was of adolescent kids discovering what it’s like to have adult physiques (muscles, boobs, paunches), The Next Level wisely reverses that so it’s more about two old-timers struggling to comprehend they’re in a video game and enjoying a more youthful existence.
Another key change comes with the locations, as The Next Level isn’t locked into the jungle setting of before. It’s not long before the gang are dropped into a desert to avoid a flock of angry ostriches, before heading to a forested mountainside, and a more wintry setting that’s almost medieval in tone. This all helps keep things interesting for those worried it would be too much of a retread doing things in the same jungle environment.
And it’s certainly fun to see Dwayne Johnson trying to now emulate the characteristics of Danny DeVito, and fast-talking Kevin Hart doing a better job playing an old-fashioned black gentleman who takes things slowly. There are even a few excuses for in-game ‘body swaps’ to occur, giving some of the other established actors a chance to switch accents and mannerisms for a short while. And if you’re wondering who missing Spencer’s playing in the game, or where Bethany ends up eventually, those are fun surprises.
I’m not sure this movie is necessarily better in enough ways, but I did find the action setpieces more enjoyable (particularly a sequence where everyone has to cross a canyon of dangling rope bridges while chased by mandrills), and there’s more comedy value in having two young-looking men behaving like pensioners. Jack Black was the standout of the previous film because he got to play a vapid teenage girl, and here he’s asked to play a young black man, which isn’t quite as funny… but it’s fun enough. It’s just more interesting to see The Rock trying to channel a recognisable Hollywood star like DeVito, with questionable results — and how his efforts pale in comparison to another actor when Eddie’s consciousness jumps into another body.
There’s certainly a more interesting nemesis in Jurgen the Brutal, who is every cliche of a bearded warlord distilled into one character. Rory McCann has great fun in the role and looks suitably foreboding, but it’s a pity the script can’t be allowed to show us his side of the story. The Next Level is driven by the hero characters as the “players” of the game, of course, so unlike a more conventional film, the story can’t show audiences what the villain’s up to elsewhere. This means Jurgen’s screentime is frustratingly limited and he doesn’t really have much to do until the climax, which robs the film of a chance to add depth to his character and make us get behind why the heroes want to defeat him. But as this is a film that sticks close to the conventions of video games, some shallow character work is perhaps nothing to be too concerned about. However he’s treated, McCann looks more threatening than Bobby Cannavale’s corrupt archaeologist from Welcome to the Jungle.
Lasting 119-minutes, it’s questionable why Jumanji: The Next Level couldn’t have been a half-hour shorter. There are plenty of moments that could’ve been erased without upsetting anything, certainly once the novelty value of noticing the sequel’s changes wears off and you’re now watching for the hope of a clear and exciting narrative. However, despite its flaws, The Next Level is marginally more entertaining than its predecessor, only without the sense of surprise. It’s clear Jake Kasdan wanted to correct mistakes and deliver something that’s broadly familiar but with enough new to make the experience worthwhile again. My only concern is a post-script scene that suggests the in-development sequel has run out of ideas…
Sony has a new partnership with IMAX, offering ‘Imax Enhanced’ 4K Ultra HD titles, of which Jumanji: The Next Level is the studio’s third such release (following Zombieland: Double Tap and Charlie’s Angels), although it arrives in the UK ahead of the latter. This essentially means the audio-visuals are guaranteed to be of a premium standard, much like how Dolby Vision and Dolby Atmos are seen as the zenith of HDR picture and surround sound respectively. Imax Enhanced titles utilise IMAX’s proprietary post-production processing to ensure the highest-quality 4K crispness with HDR that doesn’t interfere with the image. It’ll even switch to the IMAX standard 1.90:1 aspect ratio if you’re using a projector (or 1.78:1 for TV screens), and discs come with DTS:X sound to rival Dolby Atmos. Unfortunately, you need compatible equipment.
So, for me and most others, we’ll have to settle for an ordinary 4K UHD presentation, as if that’s slumming it now. The truth is Jumanji looks excellent in this 2.39:1 ratio, and it’s exactly the sort of modern release that benefits from the new home video standard. There are plenty of opportunities for retina-burning colours, squinting brightnesses, and deep black levels. HDR10+ isn’t supported by Sony, alas, and there’s no chance an IMAX disc will have Dolby Vision support considering they’re rivals. HDR10 isn’t a hardship, of course. The only downside with the 4K disc is how the CGI animals seem to have a slightly lower resolution than on the 1080p Blu-ray.
DTS:X is exclusive to the 4K UHD disc, delivering a fluid and immersive experience, which is likely even better on IMAX Enhanced audio equipment. The Blu-ray has DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 instead.
director: Jake Kasdan.
writers: Jake Kasdan, Jeff Pinkner & Scott Rosenberg (based on the novel by Chris Van Allsburg).
starring: Dwayne Johnson, Jack Black, Kevin Hart, Karen Gillan, Nick Jonas, Awkwafina, Alex Wolff, Morgan Turner, Ser’Darius Blain, Madison Iseman, Danny Glover & Danny DeVito.