PLOT Three teenagers venture back inside a video game to rescue a friend.
CAST Dwayne Johnson, Karen Gillan, Kevin Hart, Jack Black
RATED PG-13 (some rude humor and violence)
BOTTOM LINE The charismatic cast from the previous film feels ill-used in this lackluster sequel.
One of 2017's best surprises was "Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle," an unexpectedly funny and inventive sequel to 1995's board-game-themed fantasy "Jumanji." Updated to center on a video game, "Welcome to the Jungle" presented four teenagers who enter a virtual world and are transformed into unlikely avatars, resulting in the amusing sight of Dwayne Johnson as an insecure nerd, Karen Gillan as a wallflower, Jack Black as a ditzy girl and Kevin Hart as a swaggering jock. It was charming and clever, with a "be yourself" message that hit just the right note of corny wisdom.
"Jumanji: The Next Level" attempts to re-bottle that lightning and sadly fails. Though the main cast returns, the movie suffers from a classic case of sequelitis. There's some potential humor in a new wrinkle — this time, the avatars have jumbled up their personalities — but the plot feels thin, the jokes likewise and the actors struggle to entertain as the movie goes through its mostly familiar paces.
The film begins on a poignant note: Sensitive Spencer (Alex Wolff), who understandably enjoyed being the rugged Smolder Bravestone (Johnson), returns to the fantasy world of Jumanji. His loyal friends (played by Ser'Darius Blain, Morgan Turner and Madison Iseman) go back in to get him, but they also inadvertently drag along two bickering old friends, Eddie and Milo (Danny DeVito and Danny Glover, respectively). The result is a mix-up of what should be monumental proportions.
Instead, as the team embarks on yet another quest — to find the Falcon Jewel and save the world — the actors find their comedic talents poorly employed. Hart takes on Glover's sanguine personality, which dampens his antic spirit; Johnson struggles to channel DeVito (though he nails the nasal New Jersey accent); and Jack Black teeters toward stereotype when he mimics Blain (the young African-American actor who plays teenage Anthony). Only Karen Gillan, rematched with her original character, radiates confidence. Awkwafina, in a semi-surprise role, might have saved this film single-handedly had she been given more screen time.
"Jumanji: The Next Level," from returning director Jake Kasdan (also a writer this time), isn't all bad. Younger viewers will be tickled by its elaborate effects, action-slapstick routines and mildly naughty humor. For the rest of us, though, it's a game barely worth playing.