Review: ‘Jumanji’ sequel has more action with less excitement

(Photo courtesy of Columbia Pictures) The video game avatars (from left: Jack Black, Karen Gillan, Awkwafina and Dwayne Johnson) face a new challenge in "Jumanji: The Next Level."

Hacking through the jungle of overloaded action in “Jumanji: The Next Level,” a sequel to the 2017 action movie about teens trapped in a video game, a viewer has lots of time to think about the lost opportunities the movie passes up.

This haphazardly structured movie, which throws random events up on the screen in no particular order, has some elements that are entertaining. Finding those nuggets takes a lot of sifting through the dirt, though.

The “Breakfast Club”-like foursome from the first movie — nebbish Spencer (Alex Woolf), brainy Martha (Morgan Turner), jock Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain) and ex-cheerleader Bethany (Madison Iseman) — are in college now (well, Bethany’s taking a gap year) and are planning to meet up back home for Christmas. Spencer, at NYU, is having a quarterlife crisis, feeling lost and powerless in the Big Apple, and wondering why he can’t be in control the way he was as Dr. Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson) in the video game “Jumanji.”

When the other three discover that Spencer has repaired the game and gone back in, they decide to go after him — with Martha, who was dating Spencer before college separation complicated things, leading the charge. Something goes wrong, though, and new players are sucked into the game: Spencer’s grouchy grandpa, Eddie (Danny DeVito), and Eddie’s estranged friend and business partner, Milo (Danny Glover).

The sound of Johnson’s Dr. Bravestone channeling DeVito’s rasp should be funnier than it is. Alas, the movie wastes the first 20 minutes or so repeating the same joke, of Eddie/Bravestone constantly asking “We’re in a video game?” until everyone onscreen and in the audience are sick of it. On the other hand, hearing Kevin Hart, returning as the avatar Mouse Finbar, matching Glover’s honey-coated cadences is surprisingly delightful.

As the quartet — with Martha again playing as midriff-baring karate fighter Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan), and Fridge relegated this time to Jack Black’s professor character, Dr. Shelly Oberon — goes looking for Spencer, they discover the game has changed. Now, the goal is to recover a life-giving jewel from a nasty warlord (Rory McCann, late of “Game of Thrones”). They also run into a new avatar, a cat burglar named Ming (Awkwafina), who’s a key to the mystery. Meanwhile, outside the game, Bethany must call upon Alex (Colin Hanks out of the game, Nick Jonas in it) to join the rescue effort.

Director Jake Kasdan, who directed the 2017 version and co-wrote this one (with Jeff Pinkner and Scott Rosenberg), works on the often-disproved rule that more is better in a sequel. So Johnson gets to beat up more bad guys, the other heroes run from more ferocious animals — ostriches! hippos! mandrills! oh, my! — and more computer-animated madness ensues. None of it elicits any real thrills, since we know that if anyone dies, they come back at least two more times. (I may have miscounted, but I think one avatar got four lives.)

Then there are throwaway moments of romantic tension that Kasdan & Co. aren’t prepared to deal with. The best involves some flirting between Gillan’s Ruby and Awkwafina’s Ming — because of the characters playing those avatars at the moment — that is far more complicated, and interesting, than even the filmmakers realize.

Like the last movie, “Jumanji: The Next Level” misses the key point that made Joe Johnston’s 1995 original so good: bringing the jungle into the suburbs. There’s a hint, in the mid-credits scene at the movie’s end, that the franchise may finally go in that direction. We’ll have to wait for “Jumanji 3” to find out.


‘Jumanji: The Next Level’

The franchise goes back into the dangerous video game, with more challenges but less fun.

Where • Theaters everywhere

When • Opens Friday, Dec. 13

Rated • PG-13 for adventure action, suggestive content and some language.

Running time • 123 minutes