What made Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle a smash hit at the box office two years ago? I mean, the film had the legs and stamina of an unwavering Olympic marathon athlete. It just kept going from strength to strength with each passing week, tirelessly without needing to catch a breath, eventually ending its race at over $US 962 million at the global box office, more than 10 times its budget.
Is it because of The Rock? Maybe. In an era of Hollywood where stars no longer matter as much as they used to, the most electrifying man to ever step into a squared circle seems to be the rare exception to the rule. Then again, other movies starring Dwayne Johnson such as Rampage and Skyscraper didn’t exactly light the world on fire (outside of China, which is almost always furnace hot for the Brahma Bull). And Baywatch was as big a bomb as Johnson’s pecs. Could it then be the IP or brand recognition? Recent flops like Terminator: Dark Fate and Charlie’s Angels tell us a different story. So, what then?
I think it all boils down to one word: Fun. Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle was unabashedly fun. Not only was it fun, it was also exactly the kind of family-friendly fun most people clamour for this time of the year. Director Jake Kasdan understands this. And so, once again with Jumanji: The Next Level, he uses the simple videogame-esque jungle adventure narrative template as a platform for The Rock and comedic geniuses like Kevin Hart, Jack Black and Karen Gillan to banter and just do their thing.
The plot is pretty much a remixed version of Welcome to the Jungle — the gang, along with some new additions, get sucked into Jumanji and now need to locate a mysterious glowy gem and finish the quest which will allow them to get back to the real world. This kind of formulaic approach would usually suck and to a certain extent, it is problematic. But there’s also no denying just how much fun this film is when it at its best.
It’s the holiday season. The gang — Martha (Morgan Turner), Fridge (Ser’ Darius Blain) and Bethany (Madison Iseman) — excitedly text each other in their group chat, wondering when they’re going to be back in their hometown. Spencer (Alex Wolff) is part of the group chat too, but he doesn’t respond. There’s something on his mind. Something bothering him. Something that has made him as insecure about who he is as a person as he was before the events of the previous film, at the end of which he confidently planted a kiss on the girl of his dreams. We learn that he and Martha have broken up or taken a break or something. “It’s complicated,” he says. It’s because of his self-esteem, we know. We’re also introduced to Spencer’s grandfather (Danny Devito), who doesn’t like sitting still, despite having just undergone hip surgery. “Being old sucks. Don’t let anyone tell you differently.” He has an ex-friend named Milo (Danny Glover), who pays him a visit much to his chagrin. There is a point to all of this.
One thing leads to another and the gang must once again head into Jumanji. But a glitch in the console disallows the players to choose their avatars. This is where the ‘remix’ part comes in. In Welcome to the Jungle, The Rock played against type by channelling a scrawny and wimpy nerd. Here, he channels grandpa Danny Devito. Jack Black isn’t Bethany anymore, he’s big buff Fridge, who’s really annoyed that he’s no longer black or able to do a single burpee. Kevin Hart, who’s known for his constant yapping, plays Danny Glover’s Milo, who speaks slowly with deep gravitas in his voice. Karen Gillan still gets to be Martha. The best parts of the film are just watching these characters hilariously bounce off each other verbally. The additions of elderly characters bring about a gleeful comedic throughline, where Milo and Eddie keep wondering if they’re dead, not fully comprehending being stuck in a videogame or the concept of having three lives. And Spencer? Well, we’ll get to him in just a second.
Jumanji: The Next Level is very funny. It also has plenty of heart. Much like its predecessor, the film is about overcoming insecurities and dealing with the burdensome baggage that’s dragging at your ankles. When he’s at his lowest, Spencer once again decides to visit Jumanji. He believes embodying Bravestone (that’s the Dwayne Johnson avatar) again, will give him the confidence and the ego boost he needs to feel secure with himself and his relationship with Martha.
But when he enters, he becomes someone else entirely. A new character who’s a reflection of Spencer’s real-world persona — No more smouldering intensity. If Welcome to the Jungle gave him a boost by putting him in the shoes of someone bigger and stronger, someone he desperately wishes he is, here the screenwriters (Kasdan alongside Jeff Pinkner and Scott Rosenberg) say there is much strength to be found within yourself. The reshuffling of the avatars also allows the relationship of Eddie and Milo to be explored through the bodies of The Rock and Kevin Hart, both of whom have tremendous synergy and are real-life good friends.
I love the coming-of-age and coming-of-old-age aspects of the film. But much like the 2017 flick the actual adventure itself is at times bland, if not profoundly pointless. Yes, there are some absolutely fantastic set-pieces that are highly imaginative and spectacular to behold, particularly the one involving a horde of evil Mandrils (Jake Kasdan has definitely upped his game as far as CGI is concerned too). But, at the end of the day, the characters are just in search of a meaningless glowy jewel hanging around the neck of a highly forgettable villain.
The problem with these films lies in its very concept. The emotional weight and narrative force is driven by the characters who are outside the game but the people we enjoy spending time with the most, are the famous faces inside Jumanji. And unlike say in Speilberg’s Ready Player One, where the in-game epic war also affects the real-world battle against a corporate douchebag as the two universes come to a collision, here whatever happens in-game doesn’t lead to significant consequences in the real world, which nullifies a lot of the dramatic tension in the action set pieces. Perhaps what we need is a little more emphasis and urgency on why it’s important for the in-game characters to “save Jumanji.” When the characters have the exact same objective in The Next Level as they did in Welcome to the Jungle, and when the adventure itself is more or less a carbon copy, a lot of its lustre is lost.
What the journey does provide is plenty of character growth, making the best parts of the film the ones where character are searching their feelings, exploring their mortality or simply having little back and forths with one another.