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No one was more surprised than I when Jake Kasdan’s 2017 romp Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle managed to squeeze smart new thrills from the premise of Chris Van Allsburg’s 1981 children’s book, first filmed in 1995. While Joe Johnston’s Jumanji (starring Robin Williams) had featured fantastical creatures escaping from the titular board-game to run wild in Brantford, New Hampshire, Kasdan’s “continuation of the story” sent four young players into a video game, where they battled a series of challenges in order to earn a safe passage home. The result was a crowd-pleasing romp that combined the school detention premise of The Breakfast Club with boisterous CG action in sprightly fashion.
With a worldwide box-office gross just this side of a billion dollars, a sequel became an industrial necessity – never an inspiring situation. It’s a relief, therefore, to report that Jumanji: The Next Level keeps things upbeat and lively, thanks in no small part to the introduction of two counterintuitively revivifying characters – curmudgeonly old codgers whose gripes and aches provide a jolly counterpoint to the teen angst that fired Kasdan’s previous instalment.
Danny DeVito and Danny Glover are, respectively, Eddie and Milo – former restaurateurs nursing a 15-year-old estrangement beef. When Eddie’s disillusioned grandson Spencer (Alex Wolff) ventures back into the Jumanji video game with dreams of once again becoming handsome adventurer Dr Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson), his somewhat distant friends are forced to follow. Unfortunately, Eddie and Milo are unwittingly dragged along for the ride, swept into an alternative universe in which Jurgen the Brutal (Game of Thrones’s Rory McCann) has stolen Jumanji’s life-giving jewel, threatening its kingdoms with drought and darkness. “We’re in a ‘video game’,” the youngsters try to explain to the old farts, to little avail.
More confusing still is the randomness of the in-game avatar identities assigned to each player. This time, the body-swap choices of the first film are shuffled and multiplied, allowing our adult stars to experiment with a wider range of comically mimicked characters. Thus we get to enjoy the Rock doing a loopy impression of Danny DeVito, experiencing the thrill of huge biceps and fully mobile hips (“I’m back!”); and Kevin Hart channelling Glover’s laconic verbal delivery as Franklin “Mouse” Finbar, drawling: “Did I just kill Eddie by talking too slow – like he always said I would?”
Upping the ante is Awkwafina as new game-character Ming Fleetfoot, whose appearance poses both questions and answers as the narrative (penned by Kasdan with returning co-writers Jeff Pinkner and Scott Rosenberg) jumbles identities like T-shirts in a tumble dryer. Like some super-charged kaleidoscopic rehash of Freaky Friday, Jumanji: The Next Level takes polymorphous pleasure in its frenetic scrambling of age, gender and racial boundaries, yet somehow manages to keep us up to speed with who is in which body at any given moment – just about. It’s a credit to the film-makers that a one-sided conversation between a cat burglar and a hybrid horse can still pack an emotional punch, a feat of which Polish surrealist director Walerian Borowczyk would have been rightly proud.
There are a few false steps. Some of the bawdier gags about horse dicks and eunuch’s testicles strike a duff note, and there’s a bagginess to the third act that afflicts so many FX-heavy blockbusters. Yet for the most part the set pieces (which include giant ostriches chasing dune buggies and airborne encounters with snarling monkeys) have an enjoyable grandeur, emphasised by Henry Jackman’s score, which cheekily invokes Maurice Jarre’s Lawrence of Arabia theme during an early desert sequence.
As before, it’s the characters that shine through; from Karen Gillan’s ludicrously attired Ruby Roundhouse, whose ass-kicking new skills include nunchucks (once blanket-banned from UK screens by the British Board of Film Classification), to Jack Black’s map-reading Dr “Shelley” Oberon, delightfully reunited with Madison Iseman’s likable mean girl persona. We even get a reprise of Baby, I Love Your Way, a track that raised a big laugh in Welcome to the Jungle and provokes a knowing chuckle here.
Whether this winning formula can be repeated yet another time remains a moot point. An end-credits sequence invokes the “real world” adventures of yore, paving the way for further instalments, but I hope these characters remain true to their promise to “never go back again”. It’s a promise they’ve already broken once, and somehow managed to get away with it. Next time, I doubt I’ll be quite so forgiving.
Source: The Guardian
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