When compared to its 2017 predecessor, Jumanji: The Next Level may not have the same senses of discovery, renewal, or taking the core idea of something and making it fresh and funny again. Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle may be a kind of standard bearer for how to reboot a franchise for a new generation without just rehashing the original, and without drowning in gobs of gooey fan service. But The Next Level does have something Welcome to the Jungle did not have, and that is Dwayne Johnson and Kevin Hart doing impersonations of Danny Devito and Danny Glover. After 30 side-splitting minutes of this over the course of the narrative, you may be convinced this is something every movie should have, from Jane Austen adaptations to the latest slasher flick.
Johnson and Hart became famous doing what they do best, and even in Welcome to the Jungle, they played only small variations on their familiar personas. The Next Level really puts them to the test by inhabiting their bodies with characters who are fundamentally different from them. As you may recall, the previous Jumanji reboot involved four teenagers getting sucked into the titular adventure video game, taking the form of four video game avatars, two of whom were played by Johnson and Hart. While Jack Black got considerable comic mileage out of playing a vain teenage girl prone to saying “OMG,” Johnson as Spencer (Alex Wolff) just played a little less confident, and Hart as Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain) just played … shorter, I guess.
Two years later, the same four characters get sucked back into the video game, but the character mappings end up quite different. The shy teenage girl (Morgan Turner) has still come over as the badass fighter Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan), but this time, Spencer’s grandfather (DeVito) lands in the body of Johnson’s Smolder Bravestone, while the grandfather’s ex-business partner and ex-friend (Glover) ends up in Hart’s diminutive Mouse Finbar. Not only are they two generations removed from the teenagers, but they’re also new to the whole concept of being sucked into a video game, not to mention how video games work in general.
“Huh?” Johnson says, crinkling up his eyes in confusion. “We’re in a video game?” It might be a logical question to ask in your first few minutes on the ground, but Spencer’s grandfather, through Smolder Bravestone, is still asking this question three adventures later, giving some idea how funny it is to put cranky old Danny DeVito in a video game. Johnson sells every little bit of DeVito’s irascible old ethnic New Yorker displacement, in a comedic turn nothing in his personal history as a performer would have trained us to expect.
You may have determined that the mathematics don’t exactly work out here – if six characters went in, what happened to the other two? Well, there’s another character in this movie that we didn’t get the first time, and as it happens, this actress also gets to do a Danny DeVito impersonation at one point. That’s Awkwafina as a thief/safe cracker, and she’s the avatar Spencer inadvertently inhabits when he doesn’t get to choose his avatar because the game is broken.
It’s not giving too much away to say that Spencer doesn’t remain in Awkwafina’s Ming Fleetfoot the entire movie, and the switcheroo allows Awkwafina to channel her own inner Louie DiPalma. (That’s a reference to the DeVito-starring TV show Taxi, for you young’uns out there). That Awkwafina is doing this in the same year in which she starred in the drama The Farewell shows you just how far the former rapper has come. What is it about performers who didn’t originate as actors and their ability to impersonate Danny DeVito? The in-game identity of the sixth character, by the way, is funny enough to prevent spoiling here.
Jumanji: The Next Level may be the funniest movie of the year for its first hour. Unfortunately, the humour becomes significantly less sharp in the second half, and that puts more emphasis on the fact that the in-game narrative is pretty dull this time around. It does allow for a prominent role for Rory McCann, who played the Hound on Game of Thrones, but so little is done with his villain character that it just seems like a wasted opportunity. What, he didn’t have a Danny DeVito impersonation?
While the obstacles they have to overcome and the MacGuffins they have to chase may be forgettable, The Next Level also makes it clear how ultimately unimportant those things are, and how refreshing that can be. At its core, this is not a movie about people beating non-player characters in a video game in order to return home before they lose their three lives. It’s a story about two old men settling a grievance about the closing of their restaurant. That’s the baggage that exists between DeVito’s and Glover’s characters at the start of the movie, and a surprising amount of time is devoted to their strained relationship. Surprising in a good way, and quaint in a good way. The teenage characters have their own character arcs, but they are almost afterthoughts in a movie that finds its heart in two old men attempting to reconcile before they die IRL.
With outside-the-box decisions like this one, director Jake Kasdan and his two writing partners, Jeff Pinkner and Scott Rosenberg (who return from Welcome to the Jungle), continue to prove that this is not your father’s Jumanji. In fact, these two movies have pulled off a nifty trick that may be unprecedented in the reboot business. Whereas most reboots won’t make you forget the original, these two movies sort of do.
After two big crowd-pleasers like these, it seems that the enduring identity of Jumanji may more properly belong with its 21st century incarnation than the one we got back in 1995. This franchise now “belongs” to Johnson, Hart, Gillan and Black more than it does to Robin Williams and Bonnie Hunt. At the risk of speaking ill of the dead, even the impersonations are funnier. But Robin Williams knew from funny, so one suspects he’d consider Jumanji in very capable hands.