Two years after earning a billion dollars (and a couple Kids’ Choice Awards, which is, you know, nothing to sneeze at) the Jumanji saga continues with The Next Level, its highly entertaining sequel (or three-quel, depending how you count). Blasting into theaters with all the subtlety of a marauding herd of hippopotamuses thundering through the proverbial china shop, it ups the ante (and, sigh, the run time), offering a handful of inventive new twists to keep things interesting and help continue the franchise humming along.
Picking up a few years after the events of Welcome to the Jungle, the movie finds Spencer (Alex Wolff) struggling at NYU and longing for the days when he felt a sense of purpose as Dr. Smolder Bravestone inside the game. When he doesn’t show up for a scheduled brunch with the rest of the gang—Martha (Morgan Turner), Bethany (Madison Iseman), and Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain)—they get worried and head to his house. They find his grampa Eddie (Danny DeVito) and Eddie’s friend Milo (Danny Glover) but Spencer is nowhere to be found. It doesn’t take long for them to discover that Spencer has gone back into the game, which leaves them no choice but to head back in themselves to bring him home safely.
This go-round, the rub is that the cobbled-together game (which Spencer went back and retrieved after the events of the first film) doesn’t allow you to choose your avatar. Though Martha once again takes the form of Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillam), Fridge instead transforms into Professor Oberon (Jack Black), and Eddie and Milo, who got sucked into the game accidentally, become Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson) and zoologist Mouse Finbar (Kevin Hart) respectively.
The shake-up instantly breathes fresh life into the film, especially as we watch Johnson attempt DeVito’s Jersey accent and Hart have fun with Glover’s slow, old-man drawl. As for the events of the film, we get everything from a high-speed dune buggy chase with blood-thirsty ostriches to a gravity-defying, rope bridge obstacle course with man-eating mandrills. Some of it works really well, some could have easily been jettisoned for time, but the film succeeds overall because of its clever script, on-point comedy, and unqualified buy-in from the stars.
It’s so fun, in fact, that about halfway through, you may remember that the mission the gang has to complete to get back home is still a thing (something about a jewel and a drought and The Hound from Game of Thrones), but you won’t really care because you’re laughing so hard at Hart spout trivial facts about the native wildlife.
It’s clear that director Jake Kasdan, who co-wrote the script with returnees Jeff Pinker and Scott Rosenberg, had a hootenanny of time putting this thing together, and the cast (which adds the always-great Awkwafina to the mix) follows suit. There’s no question The Next Level could use a little trimming here and there, but a little extra stuffing isn’t that terrible, especially around the holidays.