“Jumanji: The Next Level” is the type of “theme park film” that director Martin Scorsese complained about earlier this year. It’s a rollicking good time, for sure, but it doesn’t add up to much. Enjoy the ride with the kiddies on Saturday night and then atone for your sins by spending Sunday afternoon with a pot of coffee watching Scorsese’s thoughtful, mob epic “The Irishman” on Netflix.
“The Next Level” ain’t gonna make no “best of” lists. But with its constant stream of punchlines, sweeping computer-generated action sequences, and cheap sentimentality, this is a film ideally suited for today’s exaggerated movie-going experience.
As the buckets of popcorn get bigger along with ever-expanding screens and plush recliner seating, audiences expect to be entertained not challenged. These days, save the thinking for the streaming platforms. At the metroplex, we want the amusement park treatment. Scorsese and something called “cinema” be damned!
“The Next Level” is the sequel to 2017’s “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle.” “Jungle” was itself a reboot of 1995’s much loved “Jumanji.” Few could have predicted “Jungle’s” exponential success, but its cumulative gross was nearly a billion dollars. Naturally, a franchise was born. And arty cynicism aside, we get a solid sequel.
This time around, the game has changed. When Spencer (Alex Wolff) returns from college in the Big Apple, he discovers his grandfather, Eddie (Danny DeVito), inhabiting his old bedroom. Hobbling around the house, Eddie’s recovering from a hip operation. Spencer has had a hard time while away from the comfort of home. The distance separated him from the love of his life Martha (Morgan Turner). As he sulks, his mind turns to a familiar drumming sound. The game of Jumanji calls to him. And Spencer heeds its call.
In no time, the gang is back in action. But because the old video game is broken, the avatars get mixed up. Eddie and his former business partner Milo (Danny Glover) are pulled in. The script has fun with new folks inhabiting familiar avatars. Eddie transports into the body of Dwayne Johnson, and Milo does a turn as Kevin Hart.
Even though there’s plenty of well-mounted action, the real fireworks are Hart and Johnson as Glover and DeVito. When the game starts, Eddie and Milo are surprised to discover their new bodies, and they never really adjust to them. It’s amusing to see Hart and Johnson do their best impressions of the lovable Dannys. And they convince us. Luckily the old guys’ tenure in those avatars ends before it gets stale.
There’s no point in diving deeper into the narrative. It’s light fun that’s not on the level of the 1995 adaptation of the Chris Van Allsburg children’s fantasy picture book published in 1981. Nothing could quite compare to Robin Williams’ portrayal of a boy who grows up trapped in the dangerous game for some 26 years.
What’s surprising is that a by-the-numbers family adventure flick like “The Next Level” points up how good “Jumanji (1995)” really is. That film had a real sense of danger, and it had a secret structure weapon: the board game. The roll of the dice drove the action, and the board showed the players and the audience where things needed to go. And even though critics sneered when it was released, time has been good to the original “Jumanji.” And, I suspect, that more viewers will check out the other Van Allsburg adaptation “Zathura: A Space Adventure.”
The 2017 launch of this new brand of “Jumanji” relies heavily on a video game gimmick. This “modern” twist effectively saps from the film of the tension and sense of discovery that drove the 1995 original. Sure, in “The Next Level” we’re reminded that each player gets three lives, and by pressing on an avatar’s heart, a screen pops up, revealing their strengths and weaknesses.
But beyond those video-gamey touches, there’s little to distinguish this action fantasy from other films of its ilk. And by throwing out the old-fashioned simplicity of the board game, we lose some of the wholesome charm that endeared family viewers to the material in the first place. I shouldn’t have to remind Hollywood that families still gather around the kitchen table and play board games.
To the horror of film purists, “Jumanji: The Next Level” will dominate available theater screens across the world this weekend. The domination of “theme park films” leaves scarce real estate for theatrical viewing of prestige releases made by filmmaking auteurs. But it’s comforting to know that we can always visit the work of the masters, like Scorsese, on the small screen, where cinema now resides.
Note: The city of Newnan is well represented in “The Next Level.” Transformed into a northern town, Newnan is covered in artificial snow and a local business is converted into a warm and inviting mom and pop restaurant. Perhaps, ironically, the scenes, shot in our town, are some of the more emotionally connective. Watching these sequences should remind us that we live in a place where the influences of the big box and franchise conglomerates, at least for the time being, have yet to take over the old court square.
A RottenTomatoes.com Tomatometer-approved critic, Jonathan W. Hickman is also an entertainment lawyer, college professor, novelist, and filmmaker. He’s a member of the Atlanta Film Critics Circle, The Southeastern Film Critics Association, and the Georgia Film Critics Association. For more information about Jonathan visit: FilmProductionLaw.com or DailyFIlmFix.com