I saw Jumanji: The Next Level in the charming central Florida town of Spring Hill. Going into it, I expected a packed theater, and thus my girlfriend and I arrived early to get a good seat. What a charming throwback to the bygone era of non-reserved seating? We got there about twenty minutes before the film started and encountered an empty room. So much for planning! Still, we braced for the worst when a gaggle of high school freshmen (best guess) trooped into the theater. Why am I spending any time on this? Because I anticipated a largely family crowd based on how well Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle did. What we got were the aforementioned teenagers and a middle aged woman, all of whom laughed way too much (by my own personal estimation) at this serviceable follow up to the 2017 hit.
Sequels are hard and they are rarely good. Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle’s humor traded on the hilarity of having Jack Black (Professor Sheldon “Shelly” Oberon) act as the teenage socialista Bethany (Madison Iseman) in the body of a middle-aged, overweight man. There was also the skinny, asthmatic, and awkward Spencer (Alex Wolff) as Dr. Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson) and all that such a name evokes; Kevin Hart as the diminutive and prone to cake eating Mouse Finbar who was played (in the game) by the athletic Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain); and finally nerdy and shy Martha (Morgan Turner) was embodied by the femme fatale Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillian). In summation, Jumanji is a video game that sucks its player into a physical reality where they have to win to get out. For plot’s sake, each character inhabits the body of somebody who is the complete opposite of themselves. That was the source of its comedy, but on a deeper level it asks you to examine who we really are on the inside. Luckily, in Christ, we do not need to experience a virtual reality that could result in actual death in order to realize our true selves. But as a movie, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle just works.
So where could Jumanji: The Next Level go from that point? Its predecessor sounds about as imaginative as you can get, even if it was a soft sequel for 1995’s Jumanji. Well, for the bulk of The Next Level, it seemed to be going for the grand American tradition in sequel-making of taking concepts from the original and overloading them in the most bloated way possible. This is one of the reasons why I spent so much time early on in this review discussing the audience. Had they not seen the first? Apparently not, as the jokes were very similar in tone to the 2017 version. Thus, even though for most of The Next Level it was Eddie (Danny DeVito) in the body of Dr. Smolder Bravestone and Milo (Danny Glover) operating Mouse Finbar, and there were some chucklesome moments, the basic premise is the same: people who should not be in those guises coming to grips with their surroundings. The film did attempt a couple new tricks such as when Bethany first appears in the game as a horse. I laughed uproariously at that concept. Otherwise, it really is the same movie as Welcome to the Jungle: bad guy has jewel and good guys have to set aside their differences to work as a team to recover it and restore order to the world. It is fine. It works. It is enjoyable, just not terribly original.
Where Jumanji: The Next Level really lives up to its name is in how it delves further into the idea of who a person really is at the core. In Welcome to the Jungle, the avatars the characters inhabit become vehicles for growth. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI said that we were not made for comfort, and uncomfortable situations are opportunities for us to become better versions of ourselves. Welcome to the Jungle accomplished that goal nicely. The problem is, and this is true for living the Faith as well, life has a way of presenting us with new challenges that distract us from lessons learned. In The Next Level, these characters had drifted apart and felt isolated from one another after moving on to their various colleges. Tellingly, Spencer said of his time at school, “It is just a matter of time before someone figures out who I really am.” Friends are an excellent reminder of the best of ourselves. And with this movie, you have a cinematic example of Jesus’ virtue of laying down one’s life for one’s friends, despite nobody actually dying.
Basically speaking, if you have seen Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle you have seen Jumanji: The Next Level. That does not mean that this latest iteration is without merit. Give it a try. Seeing The Rock act like Danny DeVito is quite entertaining, and then Awkwafina (Ming) gets a chance to do her best DeVito. And that dang horse was just hysterical. Despite its lack of originality, it really does have heart, and that is worth a trip to the movies any day.