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A few clever twists and funny performances raise new ‘Jumanji’ flick

I have to honest. I really wasn’t expecting much from “Jumanji: The Next Level.”

The trailers were uninspired and given the repetitive nature of sequels, I was fully expecting the same movie we got with “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle,” only less fresh and funny. But by adding a few new characters and a few clever story twists, “The Next Level” ends up being a little better than the first flick.

“The Next Level” sees our quartet of heroes from the last film reuniting, with the exception of Spencer (Alex Wolff). When it becomes clear Spencer has re-entered the “Jumanji” game, his friends go after her, accidentally bringing Spencer’s Grandpa Eddie (Danny DeVito) and Eddie’s former partner Milo (Danny Glover) with them.

Once inside the game, our heroes are recruited into a mission to steal a sacred jewel from a vile villain and save the land of Jumanji. Let the epic chase scenes, action scenes and comedic pratfalls commence!

From the perspective of plot, “The Next Level” is the same movie as “Welcome to the Jungle.” But it does just enough to keep things interesting and freshen up what is a pretty stale plotline.

First, the movie features some pretty good acting from the whole cast but especially Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart and Awkwafina. Each of these actors has to convincingly pull not just one character, but also multiple characters inhabiting the same bodies. Johnson, for example, has to play Dr. Bravestone as inhabited by Grandpa Eddie and Spencer. And he succeeds, creating wholly separate, distinct, clearly differentiated characters that come through the same exterior.

Then there’s Jack Black, who has the same job as Johnson, Hart and Awkwafina, but he takes it to an even higher level. He has to not only play like a teen girl, like in the last movie but also an athletic young college kid, complete with the accompanying slang and vocal inflections. It’s actually a pretty fantastic performance, and if the news is right and Black is planning on retiring, this is a pretty good role to go out on.

Along with the performances, “The Next Level” adds a massive helping of heart, along with surprisingly effective thematic material about repairing broken friendships and facing your mortality. This gives “The Next Level” more of an emotional punch and even extracts a few tears in the end.

Visually, this movie doesn’t do anything particularly memorable or special. It has the requisite chase scenes featuring thousands of digitally-generated characters or characters hanging on for dear life while dangling precariously over matte paintings. The most memorable action scene involves Dr. Bravestone’s super strength, and that’s because it’s played for laughs. When this movie aims to thrill, it doesn’t quite hit the mark.

On the whole, however, “Jumanji: The Next Level” is an improvement on the last “Jumanji” flick. It’s not quite as funny, but when it hits the mark, it gets the laughs flowing. The actors do a great job juggling different characters and it’s got an unexpected dose of heart. For another helping of fast food franchise movie fair, “The Next Level” is surprisingly solid.

3 ½ Indy Fedoras out of 5

MPAA Rating: PG-13


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