JUMANJI: THE NEXT LEVEL
PG, four stars
Like the Toy Story series, the 1995 Jumanji commands strong audience loyalty, channeling the positive childhood memories the original Robin Williams starring film engenders in Gen Ys, and in the Boomers and Gen X-ers who took them to the cinema to see it, or who have used it on DVD as a great babysitter ever since.
In that film, a handful of children play a board game that draws them into the jungle world of its narrative, helped along the way by Robin Williams character, trapped in the game since childhood.
In 2017, director Jake Kasdan picked up the narrative thread laid down in Chris Van Allsburgs picture book with Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, where the game is now a home video console that glitches and traps four high schoolers in its world where their avatars - Dwayne Johnson, Karen Gillan, Jack Black and Kevin Hart - dont necessarily match the temperaments or genders of the kids that inhabit them.
That film was terrific with so much going for it, anchored by Dwayne Johnsons charismatic leading man, but especially by the ensemble riffing off each other, playing on their own crafted personas and imitating their Millennial co-stars.
This time around the filmmakers acknowledge the franchises multigenerational and international appeal by including Danny De Vito, Danny Glover and Awkwafina in the mix.
Some time has passed since the nerdy Spencer (Alex Woolf) and Martha (Morgan Turner), jock Fridge (SerDarius Blain) and popular girl Bethany (Madison Iseman) successfully passed the challenges in their mystical Jumanji experience and returned to the real world more mature for their experience.
While that journey initially brought Spencer and Martha together as a couple, eventually Spencers self-confidence has eroded as in the real world he doesnt get to walk around in the body of his online avatar - Dwayne Johnsons Dr Smoulder Bravestone.
So Spencer pulls out the old game console and goes back into Jumanji, and his friends head back in to save him from himself, along with Spencers grandfather (Danny De Vito) and Grandpa Eddies old friend Milo (Danny Glover).
Only - the game has new challenges planned for the players, including a new story to follow and by assigning the avatars randomly. I wont give away who is now playing who, but this freshness for the viewers, and the performers, is why this film breaks the sequel jinx and is as funny, if not more so, than its predecessor.
Dwayne Johnson particularly enjoys himself, playing against type and goofing throughout, and with Crazy Rich Asians star Awkwafina providing a good share of the laughs. With an Oscar nomination on the cards for her performance in The Farewell expected in coming weeks, her box office star keeps ascending.
Not only is the cast bigger, but director Kasdan takes the action outside of the original jungle-bound setting of the 2017 film. The kids are playing the games next level which makes for some fun production design from Bill Brzeski and team, including being terrorised by killer ostriches in the desert, the ultimate rope-bridge puzzle and hunting treasure in some Mongolian-like mountains.
Both Colin Hanks and his avatar from the previous film, Nick Jonas, are back, and both earn good laughs along the way, while fans will appreciate the return of Bebe Neuwirths Nora from the 1995 film, tying the films narratively closer together.
The writing is truly solid from Kasdan, working with Lost and Alias scribe Jeff Pinkner and Scott Rosenberg, who can almost be forgiven for scripting the 2003 film Kangaroo Jack thanks to his work here. They share the laughs and pathos in a healthy ratio, and I admit to shedding a few tears throughout.
Jumanji: The Next Level has multigenerational appeal, and Id suggest grandparents will enjoy its much as the kids. I suspect many more levels to come.