Jumanji: The Next Level has an all-too-accurate title

The sequel to the reboot (!) wears its videogame influences on its sleeve – for better or worse.

There’s something refreshingly honest about the new Jumanji’s title: The Next Level. Why?

Simply because that’s exactly what it is: the next one.

Two years after being welcomed to the jungle, the Jumanji gang have moved on with college and their lives. But everyone still keeps in touch and makes reunion plans for the holidays.

Coming home, Spencer (Alex Wolff) is surprised to discover his surly grandpa, Eddie (Danny DeVito at his gnome-ish best) camped in his room, recovering from surgery.  Feeling out of place at home and out of sync with his well-adjusted friends, Spencer longs for the time he looked and felt like a video-game version of the Rock and does something about it: he enters the deadly jungles of Jumanji once again!

When his friends (Morgan Turner, Ser’Darius Blain and Madison Iseman) discover what happened, they follow Spencer into the game to rescue him — but the cursed console malfunctions and whisks away not only two of the teenagers, but also Grandpa Eddie and his estranged friend Milo (a supremely serene Danny Glover)! Through the avatars of rumblin’ Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan) and bookish Shelly Oberon (Jack Black), the youngsters must jump and fight through new levels of adventures with deadly enemies, rescue their friend Spencer but also guide Eddie and Milo, who are bewildered to find themselves in the video game bodies of the comically manly Smoulder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson) and comically pint-sized Mouse Finbar (Kevin Hart).

Jumanji: The Next Level cheerfully leans into its video game nature, not only for a number of literal “in-game logic” gags but also to reach its own next level: becoming a profitable and enduring 2010s movie franchise. The idea is sound, as most of the blockbusters this decade are hybrid engines: handfuls of pre-visualized action sequences arranged along an arc where the characters get to interact throughout sketches and bits of sitcom plotting between the chases, fighting and, in Jumanji’s case, platform-hopping.

This, of course, has become de rigueur for these movies and has mostly worked out at the box office. The strength of sitcom-style writing is crafting characters that can go on for seasons without truly changing, a true asset when it’s time to build franchises.  The Marvel Cinematic Universe became shepherded by Arrested Development and Happy Endings producers Joe and Anthony Russo. The previous Jumanji and recent Ant-Man and Spider-Man outings are scripted by Community duo Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers. And of course, director Jake Kasdan has been producing sitcoms for years, reaching back to Freaks and Geeks, all the way to New Girl

The strategy works: the half-sitcom, half-video game hybrid is a boon for Jumanji, it speed-runs from playable action levels to sitcom cutscenes where the Rock and Kevin Hart trade off solid imitations of Danny DeVito and Danny Glover under the bewildered eyes of their co-stars. Meanwhile, Karen Gillan and Jack Black must contend with the most universal of situations: how frustrating it is to teach your grandparents to play a video game in the guise of explaining their dangerous new world to their elders.  Dwayne Johnson squeezes all possible juice from “wouldn’t it be funny if I acted like Danny DeVito?” Every actor gets to body-switch roles, but Akwafina (as thief avatar Ming Fleetfoot) acquits herself very well as another version of Danny DeVito’s Ed.

The idea of different characters inhabiting the avatars ensures they can make Jumanji: Game Over, Jumanji : Jungle Glitch or Jumanji: Turbo Edition every two years, but greatly limits the emotional impact the characters might have.

In this era of blockbuster franchising, spectacle counts but what brings audiences back to the Harry Potter movies or Marvel Studios’ productions are the characters.  While the writers work to give everyone recognizable tics and catchphrases to hang onto, it’s still difficult to fully connect with them. Even if new and different characters play their avatars in future installments, Smoulder Bravestone and Ruby Roundhouse will always be the same, even if they remain a character you don’t know or recognize from the previous movies.

In the video game industry, games are built from engines. If the first game is a success, you just keep making them, pumping out sequels after sequels while slightly refining the engine. In that way, Jumanji: The Next Level might be the most video game-ish movie of them all. ■

Jumanji: The Next Level opens in Montreal theatres Friday, December 13. Watch the trailer here: