After the massive surprise hit that was Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, Columbia Pictures began fast-tracking a sequel. Just like how there were so many trends working against Welcome to the Jungle, fast-tracked sequels to action movies and comedies generally don’t turn out so well. Comedy sequels in general are rarely good, while action movies generally need a bit more planning than most other live-action movies. On paper, it sounded like The Next Level was going to be more of the same – a rushed knockoff of lightning in a bottle.
Thankfully, that’s not what we got. Sure, Jumanji: The Next Level follows the same general formula as Welcome to the Jungle, but despite its fast-tracked production, it doesn’t feel rushed. It still received generally positive reviews, with a 71% on Rotten Tomatoes. While it didn’t earn as much as the previous film, it still earned just over $800 million on a budget somewhere between $125 and $132. Let’s explore how this sequel succeeded where so many others failed.
As early as February, 2018, director Jake Kasdan announced that he’d be returning for a sequel, along with returning writers Jeff Pinkner and Scott Rosenberg. The four lead actors, portraying the video game “avatars”, would also return. That’s Dwayne Johnson as Dr. “Smolder” Bravestone, Karen Gillen as Ruby Roundhouse (killer of men), Kevin Heart as Mouse Finbar (the backpack guy), and Jack Black as “Shelly” Oberon (the map guy). Henry Jackman also returned to compose the soundtrack. I didn’t talk much about the soundtrack in last week’s blog post, so I’ll be talking about it this time. Nick Jonas, who played the fifth playable avatar “Seaplane” McDonough, also returns.
About a year later, around the same time filming began, Black confirmed that The Next Level would be the fourth film in the franchise. Zathura: A Space Adventure is now officially part of the Jumanji franchise. In January 2019, they also added Awkwafina, Danny DeVito and Danny Glover to the cast, while the actors playing the real-life teens would also return. That’s Alex Wolff as the neurotic Spencer, Morgan Turner as Martha, Ser’Darius Blain as “Fridge”, and Madison Iseman as Bethany.
DeVito plays Spencer’s grandfather Eddie, and Glover plays Milo, an estranged friend of Eddie’s and a former business partner. Despite Milo and Bethany sharing the same last name, Walker, they aren’t related. Awkwafina plays a new avatar within the Jumanji video game – Ming Fleetfoot. I’ll talk more about her later. Rory McCann rounds out the main cast as Jurgen the Brutal, the main antagonist for the movie.
Several noteworthy minor actors also joined the cast. Dania Ramirez plays the NPC known as Flame, a woman who apparently loves Bravestone. Massi Furlan plays NPC Switchblade, Flame’s husband and a crime boss. Danny DeVito’s daughter, Lucy, plays a minor character. Last, but certainly not least, Bebe Neuwirth returns as Nora Shepard from the first movie – the aunt of Judy and Peter, in a minor yet significant role.
Unlike the previous movie, which mostly takes place in a jungle, this movie’s in-game locations are much more varied. You’ve got a desert. You’ve got a snowy mountain. You’ve got a canyon with a set of bridges that look and feel like they’re straight out of a classic-era video game. The filming locations include Atlanta, New Mexico, Calgary (most likely for the mountains), Fortress Mountain Resort (in the Canadian Rockies), the Algodones Dunes in California, and Hawaii.
As with the previous movie, The Next Level released the same month as a Star Wars movie – Rise of Skywalker. Despite the tight competition, it earned $59 million in its opening weekend, and another $26 million the next weekend, behind Rise of Skywalker’s opening. It actually earned more in its third weekend, rising back to $35 million – even though it stayed behind Star Wars. After most theaters closed in March of 2020 due to some virus you may have heard of, the film relegated itself to drive-ins. It managed to keep making money at these drive-ins all the way into July, along with several theater re-openings in other countries.
Jumanji: The Next Level isn’t as good as Welcome to the Jungle, but it is the more entertaining of the two. It also does make several improvements over its predecessor. It’s a funnier movie as a comedy. The action is more exciting. The variety in film locations makes this a more visually interesting film. The music is improved over the previous movie, and the elements from the original Jumanji’s soundtrack are more obvious. The sum of this movies parts makes it seem like it’s better on paper, but there is one crucial area where it’s not as good – the character development.
This movie takes place two years after the first reboot movie. The four teenagers are still friends thanks to their experience trapped in the world of Jumanji. Martha and Spencer are taking a break from their relationship, and it appears right away that this is more on his end than hers. The movie makes it clear early on that Spencer is suffering from insecurity issues, and he’s not talking with the others as much as he used to because of these issues. He and Martha are both in College, but in different cities. Martha is much less shy than she used to be, but she only feels like she can be herself around the rest of the foursome. Meanwhile, “Fridge” is both in college and has some sort of athletic career. He’s taking his school more seriously, and is getting much better marks on his own. Bethany is traveling the world, and often helping build schools. She’s clearly changed the most of the four, from the self-obsessed Instagram star wannabe to someone who is very interested in helping people and exploring nature.
Spencer’s insecurities lead him to try to repair the Jumanji game system that the foursome destroyed at the end of the first movie. He misses feeling unstoppable like Bravestone. Through an accident, he’s sucked into the game overnight, when he’s supposed to meet the other three at “Nora’s” for breakfast the next morning. When he doesn’t show up, the others soon figure out that he went back in, and decide to go after him. However, unlike last time, the game doesn’t let them choose their characters. Is it because the system is in a state of disrepair, or is there something else going on? Good question, but one that’s probably best left unanswered for this movie.
Like last time, the bulk of the movie takes place inside the game. While that may cause concern for some, this movie plays with the formula in some very clever ways. The first movie worked so well because two of the lead actors played against their type, and did it well. This movie takes that a step further. Black’s character is now “Fridge”, so he’s playing an athletic black guy stuck in “the old fat dude” as he puts it. Black nails the performance just as much as he nailed the teenage girl last time. Meanwhile, Bravestone is no longer controlled by Spencer – instead, he’s played by Grandpa Eddie. He’s got a very different accent, and he’s a confused, cranky old man. There are times when he seems a bit uncomfortable in the role, but it’s consistently hilarious. Heart, who played the athletic guy last time, is now Milo, Glover’s character. He also nails portraying the complete opposite of his usual acting style. He even nails the voice.
The only in-game character controlled by the same person is Martha as Ruby Roundhouse, but even her performance is more entertaining this time round. Her expressions when she realizes the two old men are in the game are fantastic. Meanwhile, Spencer hoped to get back into Bravestone’s body, but is instead controlling Ming, the new character. She’s a stealthy, crafty burglar with pollen allergies. In other words, she’s basically him, just as a woman. I didn’t like Awkwafina’s character in Shang-Chi, and thought she was mediocre in Raya and the Last Dragon (although that was more because of the writing), but in this movie, she’s really good. She portrays a neurotic, insecure teenage boy very well.
Most of this movie’s comedy comes from the underrated performances, but the writing also deserves a lot of credit. Milo’s insistence of talking way too much leads not only to actual danger for the group, but a lot of great dialogue. Grandpa Eddie’s cranky nature ends up almost killing everyone much earlier than in the first movie. His poorly-timed smolders are also a great running gag. So is the fact that it takes way too long for him to grasp simple concepts. “Fridge” getting the short end of the stick for the second time round is also funny, as this is the second time in a row where he’s got the most weaknesses of the group – despite switching characters.
The action is also quite good in this movie. The bridge sequence in particular is very well constructed, in terms of concept, visuals, stunt work, and how there’s a legitimate sense of danger. Apparently that scene was originally planned for the first movie, but for one reason or another it didn’t work out. They managed to fit it into this movie instead. There are other great action scenes as well, including the chaotic ostrich chase, and the finale in a castle that shows everyone working as a team better than ever before.
In addition to the new character avatars, on everyone’s second trip into Jumanji, there are also new gameplay mechanics. About half-way through the movie, Martha and “Fridge” accidentally stumble on a way to switch characters. This brief scene allows Gillen to also act against her normal type, portraying an excitable, athletic black guy. She does it quite well. Jack Black once again showcases his talent by portraying a different teenage girl than before, and you can tell the difference between his Martha and his Bethany. It’s this scene that proves how well cast this movie is in general. It’s also noteworthy that Gillen plays Nebula in the Guardians of the Galaxy movies, as well as Infinity War and Endgame, and that’s also a very different role from Martha in these movies.
As I said earlier though, the biggest thing holding this movie back is the character drama and development. In the first movie, all four of the teenagers grew noticeably through their experience. Spencer learned to be more confident. Martha learned to be less shy and judgmental. “Fridge” learned to take better responsibility for himself. Bethany became much less selfish. All of them became friends in the process. On the one hand, I fully understand why Spencer needs more development, and his insecurities do feel natural for his character. On the other hand, the fact that he stopped talking to the others because of these insecurities, and that he started repairing the game without telling anyone, despite knowing how dangerous it is, does make him less likeable. While the movie does give him room to grow, this time it’s little more than self-realizations. It doesn’t feel like he’s gotten rid of his insecurities by the movie’s end.
The other three teenagers don’t really grow much at all. This movie only shows how much they’ve grown, how much closer they are with each other, and how they care enough about Spencer to risk their lives despite his serious lapse in judgement. That in itself is not a bad thing, and it’s nice to see how they’ve become better people. The main character development this time round comes from Eddie and Milo. It’s nice that they reconcile, but it goes through most of the same motions that Spencer and Fridge went through in the first movie. It’s also not quite as convincing.
On paper, you’d think this movie shows little room for further sequels, based on the fact that it’s the prime example of a “bigger and better” sequel that isn’t as good from a dramatic standpoint. You’d think that they stretched this concept as far as it can go. For most of the movie, I felt the same way. But then towards the end of the movie, there are three very interesting hints that show a lot of potential for one last go at Jumanji.
First, Jurgen the Brutal also has a strengths and weaknesses menu, as revealed during the final fight. A couple weeks after the movie’s release, Johnson revealed in an interview that Jurgen is not an NCP, but is actually an avatar for an unknown person. That alone raises so many questions. In a mid-credits scene, a heater repair man played by Lamorne Morris is seen approaching the game system, along with Spencer’s mother. He reaches for the system, but then the movie cuts back to the restaurant. There, we see some of the animals from the game running on the streets of the real world, and the teenagers witness this as their leaving.
I couldn’t find one individual clip with bloopers, so here’s a bunch of shorter ones.
It’s been confirmed that Kasdan is working on a follow-up film, and that they intend to keep the core cast of Welcome to the Jungle and The Next Level. They appear to be taking their time a bit more with this sequel, but producer Hiram Garcia confirmed in November of 2021 that a pitch is ready to be presented after Kasden finishes working on the upcoming Red One. Based on these three teasers alone, there’s a lot of potential here. I’m wondering if a third movie may explore the origins of the Jumanji game in general. There’s the question of who is playing Jurgen the Brutal, and how long has he been stuck in the game. With Aunt Nora from the first movie returning, could we potentially see anyone else from the original return? Would this still mainly take place in the game, or would this fifth film in the franchise split itself between the game and the real world? Will we see a more direct connection between Jumanji and Zathura, now that they’re officially part of the same franchise?
There are so many different directions that this sequel could take, many of which would help it avoid the “bigger and better” trap that The Next Level leaned slightly into. None of this means that the next Jumanji movie will be good, but I’ll at least be paying attention.
Whatever the case, Jumanji: The Next Level is a very entertaining movie. Just like Welcome to the Jungle, it’s much better than it has any right to be, even if it’s not as good. It goes further with the comedy that worked, without taking anything too far. It mixes things up enough that it doesn’t feel stale, even if it doesn’t quite feel fresh either. Not to mention the action in this movie is very good. If you enjoyed Welcome to the Jungle, this is an easy recommendation.
Next month, I’ll be looking at four Ridley Scott movies. I might change my mind on the list, and I haven’t yet decided on the order, but as of right now I’m planning on looking at Alien, Gladiator, Kingdom of Heaven (the vastly superior director’s cut), and Blade Runner. If I can, I’ll also watch Spider-Man: No Way Home to fully catch up on the MCU movies.