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Non-Review Review: Jumanji – The Next Level

Jumanji: The Next Level is a deeply weird and uneven film, but one that works much better than it really should.

To be fair, a lot of the more serious problems with The Next Level are the problems that face many blockbuster sequels. The film scales upwards from its predecessor, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle. Given than Welcome to the Jungle was already somewhat overstuffed, The Next Level is bursting at the seams. Not only does the film bring back the entire primary cast from the previous film and bulk up the material for characters in supporting roles, it also adds at least three new major actors to the cast and attempts to maintain the same setpiece-driven pacing that kept Welcome to the Jungle moving.

Game on.

However, this doesn’t capture just how weird The Next Level allows itself to become. The film’s final act features one of the most bizarre emotional pivots in recent memory – a plot resolution that includes a terminal cancer diagnosis, a flying horse and Awkwafina doing her best impression of Danny DeVito. This isn’t even the primary plot. This is the pay-off to a secondary storyline that has, by this point in the narrative, been pushed into the background. None of this should work. Truth be told, it doesn’t really work. However, it is strangely committed. The Next Level never wavers as its plot leads to these strange places.

Like Welcome to the Jungle before it, The Next Level benefits from a propulsive approach to storytelling. To dwell on any of its plot points or character beats or emotional pay-offs would invite madness, and so the film never really does. The Next Level never settles down long enough to let the audience really appreciate how surreal or unusual its framing of these conventional tropes actually is, because there’s always something more to see or to do. The result is a messy and convoluted piece of blockbuster cinema that openly frays at the edges (and throughout), while holding together better than it should.

Solid as The Rock.

The Next Level is arguably two different Jumanji-adjacent projects that happen to unfold in parallel, for better and for worse. The first of those two projects is the straight-up sequel to Welcome to the Jungle, which focuses on the protagonists of the first movie after the events of their last adventure. Naturally, the kids have drifted apart after their time together, and a Christmas reunion pokes at long-simmering insecurities. Martha has gone off to college, leaving Spencer feeling insecure. In a funk, Spencer returns to the video game to try and rebuild some self-esteem, with catastrophic results.

The second Jumanji-related project that plays out within The Next Level is a silver-dollar friendly spin-off, which happens to focus on Spencer’s grandfather Eddie and his former business partner Milo. This provides an excuse to involve veteran performers Danny DeVito and Danny Glover in the film. Naturally, Eddie and Milo eventually find themselves sucked into the game, and provide an inversion of the dynamic in Welcome to the Jungle. Whereas Spencer got to experience what it was like to grow up, Eddie gets to experience what it was like to be young once again.

Sands of time.

These two films are constantly at odds with one another within The Next Level. The bulk of the film’s first two acts cast Eddie in the role of Doctor Smolder Bravestone, which is effectively an excuse for Dwayne Johnson to offer an endearingly committed impersonation of Danny DeVito. It’s hardly the most elegant of comedic premises, but it’s a smart enough riff on the original set-up. It helps that Johnson is one of the most endearing leading men working today, with his commitment to blatantly absurd material going a long way to sell films like Rampage.

However, The Next Level doesn’t quite trust its old-mind-in-young-body premise to actually carry anything more than laughs. So while the first two acts tend to play up the comedy of errors with Eddie enjoying his ride in Bravestone’s body, the climax inevitably offers something of a reset to the premise of Welcome to the Jungle. Through a convenient plot device, Spencer assumes control of Bravestone’s body for the climax, offering a factory-settings reset to the dynamic of the original film.

Jumanji: The Previous Generation.

This is an odd choice, because that means that the film’s third act feels more like a direct sequel to Welcome to the Jungle than a conclusion to The Next Level. This choice to switch lanes at the two-thirds mark also leads to various other inelegant plot machinations. Because the film plans to reset, it has to introduce more new characters within the game, such as the thief Ming Fleetfoot played by Awkwafina. Because the film needs to find something for its teenage cast to do while Eddie and Milo are in the game, it expands the role of Alex played by Colin Hanks in Welcome to the Jungle.

If all of this seems like a bit much, it really is. The Next Level spends so much time trying to straighten itself out, that there’s little room for anything else. Of course, the film’s ironic sense of humour means that it can get away with a very thinly-sketched world. The characters understand that they are in a video game, so the stakes and the plot don’t actually matter. One of the film’s best jokes is the clumsy addition of the villainous Jurgen the Brutal into Johnson’s back story, which is primarily an excuse to have Johnson play Bravestone’s father in a bad wig and dodgy moustache. It is mentioned maybe twice. At best.

Oh, (Jonas) brother.

This approach is both a blessing and curse. There is a sense that The Next Level gets away with as much as it does because it moves quickly. It never dwells on any of its ideas long enough for the audience to register how shallow it all is, or to grow to attached to a status quo that will inevitably be reset. Indeed, the film follows its ideas to some genuinely gonzo places, and only really gets away with that because it moves so quickly that it can trip over a few steps along the way without falling flat on its face. The resolution of Eddie and Milo’s arc is one of the strangest things in recent blockbuster cinema.

However, there’s also a sense in which trying to do so much so fast means that there’s no investment in what’s actually happening. The performers are largely game, especially Johnson-as-DeVito and Karen Gillan working with an expanded-but-perhaps-thankless role as veteran-slash-exposition machine, but the film constantly draws attention to its own absurdities in a way that is jarring. “Worst Bravestone ever,” Fridge complains while watching Eddie flail around in Bravestone’s body. The film doesn’t trust the characters or the performance to communicate that, so has to resort to fourth-wall breaking exposition.

Video games killed the blockbuster star?

The Next Level doesn’t work especially well, but it still works much better than it should. By all accounts, the film should collapse under the weight heaped up on. Instead, it only occasionally comes off the rails.

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