In 2017, director Jake Kasdan rebooted the ’90s family adventure film “Jumanji” by plunking John Hughes-style teen characters into a wilderness-set video game. “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” was a critical and commercial success, anchored by the charms of megastars Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Karen Gillan and Jack Black, and the unique pleasure of watching them all play against type. Kasdan and company (including co-writers Jeff Pinkner and Scott Rosenberg) know a good formula when they see it. So the sequel, “Jumanji: The Next Level,” simply offers more and more of it: There’s more jaw-droppingly crazy video game hijinks, and especially, more stars playing personas vastly different from theirs.
The video game setting allowed a motley crew of teens (Alex Wolff, Madison Iseman, Morgan Turner and Ser’Darius Blain) to choose their own avatars and see what happens to them when they get to be someone else for a little while. Self-effacing nerd Spencer (Wolff) learned his own strengths as the muscle-bound Dr. Smolder Bravestone (Johnson), but it was also hilarious to watch Johnson play the insecure and jumpy Spencer. However, the breakout player of the “Welcome to the Jungle” ensemble was most definitely Jack Black, who perfectly inhabited teen queen Bethany (Iseman) in his portly cartographer’s bod. In “The Next Level,” Kasdan doubles, even triples down on this conceit, to rather hilarious returns.
The film opens with the pals now in college, returning home for winter break. It’s a bit of a rocky opening, especially since it feels like Danny DeVito, as Spencer’s grandfather Eddie, and Danny Glover, as his long-lost friend and business partner Milo, have been seemingly shoehorned into the dynamic. But the reason for their presence all becomes clear when Martha (Turner), Bethany and Fridge (Blaine), discover that Spencer’s gone missing. They once again transport themselves into the game, accidentally bringing Eddie and Milo with them. This time, Fridge ends up in Black’s avatar, Oberon, while DeVito and Glover find themselves in the form of the strapping Bravestone and tiny zoologist Finbar (Hart), respectively. If you’ve ever needed to hear Johnson attempt (and somewhat master) DeVito’s signature northern New Jersey accent, you’re in luck (though there’s another performer who later takes on the DeVito drawl who is a bit more naturally inclined to the cadence).
For a film that features such eye-popping sequences as aggressive mandrills on floating bridges, inexplicable blimps and an ostrich herd/dune buggy race, this is very much a performance-driven picture. The second time around, there’s even less of a plot, with Rory McCann in some impressive post-apocalyptic Night’s Watch gear snatching the jewel they have to recover to win and escape the game.
The pleasures of “Jumanji: The Next Level” revolve around the ability of each of our stars and their abilities to do impressions. Hart’s nuanced mimicry of Glover is downright inspired, and the story offers up a few chances for the characters to avatar-swap, showing off the actors’ abilities to embody the different jock/nerd/cheerleader/cantankerous grandpa personas. Once again, this is a one-joke movie, but for the time being, that joke still has some tread on the tires, especially with such charming stars and some light innovation. It remains to be seen how much mileage this franchise can sustain on charm alone, however.