I’m “biast” (con): hated the first movie
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
possible minor spoilers, though they are hinted at in the trailers
Welcome back to the jungle. And welcome to an unfortunate new Christmas movie tradition: the Jumanji movie. And don’t think we ain’t gettin’ another one in 2021 after this one makes a bazillion dollars because moms and dads are desperate to divert this kids over the long Christmas break. It’s happening and we can’t stop it. We are all at the mercy of our Hollywood overlords (not that we haven’t been since movies were invented.)
Apparently moviegoers of all ages enjoy watching The Rock (Fast & Furious: Hobbs & Shaw, Fighting with My Family) and Jack Black (The House with a Clock in Its Walls, Goosebumps) nominally sending themselves up by pretending that non-Rock-ish and non–Jack Black–ish people are inhabiting their bodies and their pop-culture personas. I agree that in theory that sounds like it should be highly amusing — I like both these guys, and I like their comic chops. But these movies just make me want to sob my eyes out at the abysmal lack of fun they exhibit even as they think they are all about imagination and adventure. Not least because those caricatures invoke racial and gender stereotypes that need to die, now.
So this is more of the exact same tedious nonsense we saw back in 2017’s Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, when a quartet of high-schoolers magically entered a 1990s-era videogame and were transformed into “hilariously” opposite avatars (scrawny nerd becomes buff swashbuckler; shy girl becomes scantily clad “dance fighter” *barf*; etc) to solve a jungle adventure puzzle. Here, in The Next Level — spoiler: no new levels are actually achieved here — the one-joke wonder is painfully extended by having two grandpas join the shenanigans. Now it’s “hilarious” that squawky curmudgeon Danny DeVito (Dumbo, The Lorax) lands in the body of The Rock (and later in the body of the awesome Awkwafina [The Angry Birds Movie 2, Crazy Rich Asians] as an in-game cat-burglar character) and a loquacious Danny Glover (Monster Trucks, Beyond the Lights) becomes “boy scout” Kevin Hart (The Secret Life of Pets 2, Ride Along 2), the game’s linguist and general info-dumper. (Karen Gillan [Avengers: Endgame, The Big Short] also returns as a scantily clad riff on Lara Croft. The movie doesn’t even bother to note this time around that she is half naked while the male characters are all more appropriately fully clothed for their exploits. Awkwafina gets to be fully dressed but she’s always inhabited by male players, and yes, that is sexism in a nutshell.)
Look, I cut my cinematic teeth on Raiders of the Lost Ark, to which these movies owe an immense debt even as they utterly fail to capture any of those Indiana Jones thrills. (The Next Level is directed and cowritten by Jake Kasdan, son of legendary Raiders writer Lawrence Kasdan; Jake also directed 2017’s Jumanji reboot. I am sorry to say that the apple fell far from that tree.) Who doesn’t want to buckle some swash through an exotic realm while rescuing a priceless jewel from baddies or whatev? (Hello also to Romancing the Stone, and honestly what these Jumanji movies could use is some good smooching between people who are old enough to have their own credit cards.) But Kasdan (Sex Tape, Bad Teacher) directs action sequences as if he intends to suck all the excitement and suspense out of them; there’s one potentially clever bit here involving the jungle-adventure trope of rope bridges that need to be navigated videogame style, and it kills you to see how breathtaking this sequence could have been, except the most it rouses in one to is a desire to scream at the screen that it shouldn’t be this dull and lifeless.
The stakes remains way too low, too, to generate much suspense. As in the previous film, everyone gets another life when they “die” in the game, up to three new lives. But we still don’t know what happens if someone were to use up their three lives: it seems entirely reasonable to suppose that that would simply throw the human player out of the game and back into the real world. (C’mon, are there NO NERDS AT ALL making these movies?) But everyone here continues to insist that they would actually, literally die. There’s no basis to think that. (Please, I am not suggesting that we need another movie to explore this idea. Although maybe after three 21st-century Jumanji movies, the franchise would die? Wishful thinking, I know.)
This isn’t an action adventure so much as a body-swap comedy, minus any real laughs. But hey, let’s talk about why — in this second outing into the game — the humans-trapped-in-digital-avatar-bodies would discover a feature in the game that allows them to switch avatars for the purposes of further body-swap mischief. This suggests a literal whole new level of horror — whoever programmed the game knows that it is sucking in players, and wants to fuck with them — except the movie doesn’t even realize it.
I’m not sure there’s anything worse, speculatively speaking, than a fantastical story that seems not to understand the very speculation it’s engaging in. But I’m sure the next Jumanji movie will show me. *groan*