Welcome back to the jungle. And welcome to an unfortunate new Christmas movie tradition: the Jumanji movie. And don't think we ain't gettin' another one in 2021 after this one makes a bazillion dollars, because moms and dads are desperate to divert the kids over the long Christmas break. It's happening and we can't stop it. We are all at the mercy of our Hollywood overlords.
Apparently moviegoers of all ages enjoy watching Dwayne Johnson and Jack Black nominally sending themselves up by pretending that non-Dwayne Johnson and non-Jack Black people are inhabiting their bodies and pop culture personas. In theory, that sounds like it should be highly amusing — I like both these guys, and I like their comic chops. But these movies just make me want to sob my eyes out at the abysmal lack of fun they exhibit, even as they think they are all about imagination and adventure.
This is more of the exact same tedious nonsense we saw back in 2017's Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, when a quartet of high schoolers magically entered a 1990s-era video game and were transformed into "hilariously" opposite avatars (scrawny nerd becomes buff swashbuckler, shy girl becomes scantily clad "dance fighter," etc.) to solve a jungle adventure puzzle. Here, in The Next Level — no new levels are actually achieved here — the one-joke wonder is painfully extended by having two grandpas join the shenanigans.
Now, it's "hilarious" that squawky curmudgeon Danny DeVito lands in the body of the Rock (and later in the body of the awesome Awkwafina as an in-game cat-burglar character) and a loquacious Danny Glover becomes "boy scout" Kevin Hart, the game's linguist and general info-dumper. Karen Gillen also returns as a scantily clad riff on Lara Croft. The movie doesn't even bother to note that she is half naked while the male characters are all more appropriately fully clothed for their exploits. Awkwafina gets to be fully dressed but she's always inhabited by male players, and yes, that is sexism in a nutshell.
Look, I cut my cinematic teeth on Raiders of the Lost Ark, to which these movies owe an immense debt even as they utterly fail to capture any of those Indiana Jones thrills. (The Next Level is directed and co-written by Jake Kasdan, son of legendary Raiders writer Lawrence Kasdan.) But Kasdan directs action sequences as if he intends to suck all the excitement and suspense out of them. There's one potentially clever bit involving the jungle-adventure trope of rope bridges that need to be navigated video game-style, and the most it rouses in you is the desire to scream at the screen that it shouldn't be this dull and lifeless.
The stakes remain way too low to generate much suspense. As in the previous film, everyone gets another life when they "die" in the game, up to three new lives. But we still don't know what happens if someone were to use up their three lives: It seems entirely reasonable to suppose that that would simply throw the human player out of the game and back into the real world. But everyone here continues to insist that they would actually, literally die. There's no basis to think that. (I am not suggesting that we need another movie to explore this idea. Although maybe after three 21st-century Jumanji movies, the franchise would die?)
This isn't an action adventure so much as a body-swap comedy, minus any real laughs. But hey, let's talk about why — in this second outing into the game — the humans trapped in digital avatar bodies would discover a feature in the game that allows them to switch avatars for the purposes of further body-swap mischief. This suggests a literal whole new level of horror — whoever programmed the game knows that it is sucking in players, and wants to mess with them — except the movie doesn't even realize it.
I'm not sure there's anything worse, speculatively speaking, than a fantastical story that seems not to understand the very speculation it's engaging in. But I'm sure the next Jumanji movie will show me. ♦