Jumanji: The Next Level review – a game worth replaying

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The new Jumanji sequel might not have quite the initial impact of Welcome To The Jungle, but it’s a solid trip out to the movies – here’s our review.

If 2016’s terrific Jumanji: Welcome To The Jungle arrived in cinemas unburdened by much in the way of expectation, it’d be fair to say its sequel storms in with the opposite challenge. The previous movie was so much fun, and such a turnaround from the negative build-up to its release, that the near-$1bn global gross it enjoyed made it feel like a sleeper hit. For The Next Level, there’s a much greater weight of expectations on its shoulders. No pressure, then.

The Next Level unites the same core creative team. Jake Kasdan is back behind the camera, co-writing the script with Jeff Pinkner and Scott Rosenberg. In front of the camera, the two core quartets – Karen Gillan, Dwayne Johnson, Jack Black, Kevin Hart and Madison Iseman, Alex Wolff, Morgan Turner, Ser’Darious Blain – are back too. They’re joined this time by Awkwafina, Danny DeVito and Danny Glover in a nice cardigan. And on the surface, there’s a very clear intent to go down the Much Bigger Sequel route.

We thus join the characters a year after the original film, with their real-world selves now more disparate, not least Alex Wolff’s Spencer. He’s parted from Morgan Turner’s Martha, and is spending time with his struggling grandfather, played by Danny DeVito. Life, it’d be fair to say, has taken a few turns, and this is the story fuel the film uses to get everyone back into the Jumanji videogame from the last movie.

There’s a bit of a parallel to the recent Frozen II here. That the Frozen sequel had to conjour up some new story out of nowhere to set events there on their way. Jumanji: The Next Level doesn’t feel as blatant, but there’s a bit of a sense of newly-invented foundations being put in place. Conversely, there’s a commendable and welcome desire to put smaller human stakes at the heart of the film. I appreciated that enormously.

Once everyone gets back into the world of Jumanji itself, there’s a lot of explaining to do for those new to the franchise. It falls upon the shoulders of Karen Gillan’s version of Martha – here given a lot more screentime – to do that explaining. And boy does it feel she has a lot to do. In the first half of the film, it feels like there’s a heavy weight of setup being done, and it does mean that The Next Level is much slower out of the traps. If you’re new to the franchise, it’ll feel helpful. If you’ve visited before, it’d be the bit where you want to skip forward past the tutorial.

The film does, though, takes some risks. Wary perhaps of the old Jurassic Park model, where those films are at their most effective with the core dynamic of creatures in a theme park and struggle when they stray, here The Next Level elects to juggle its characters around. No spoilers, just that it does affect the dynamic and interplay a little, with the resultant film feeling a bit looser and less tight than last time around. That said, you’re still getting a good number of chuckles for your money, and things pick up particularly when Awkwafina arrives on the scene too. She feels like a human being invented with an innate ability to walk into a scene and own it. Spoiler: she does.

The film doesn’t stray too far from the conceit of Welcome To The Jungle, and in fact replays some of the finest gags and moments from the earlier film too. But it also adds a couple of family dynamics that weren’t there before, and once it finds its feet, it belts off at a good, entertaining pace. It knows its audience, and it tries very hard to please it.

Which, on the whole, it does. It’s not bereft of ideas, and whilst it doesn’t feel like the welcome jolt out of nowhere this time, it’s good, solid stuff. For me, it doesn’t match the last movie, in part as a consequence of its admirable determination to mix things up and alter the dynamics between characters. But even as I write it, I accept that’s a harsh thing to knock the movie for. Heck, I’ve grumbled enough about cookie-cutter sequels, and I’d far rather have this than those.

A good, solid sequel this, then, and one that – if it’s anything like the last movie – will now have to stand the rigours of numerous rewatched. You know what, though? I think it’ll handle said rigours just fine.

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