Iimagine director/co-writer Jake Kasdan and his four lead actors, upon finishing 2017’s “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” – the surprisingly great sequel to 1995’s dull “Jumanji” – got together and said “That was fun. Let’s do it again.” So two years later we have “Jumanji: The Next Level,” which does give us one fresh angle but mostly coasts by on its proven premise.
After a fairly lengthy lead-in in the real world, the four young adults from “Welcome to the Jungle” of course find themselves back in the video game. The main point of the opening exposition is that we meet Eddie and Milo, disgruntled former restaurant partners played by Danny DeVito and Danny Glover.
The most fun element of “The Next Level” is watching Kevin Hart channel Glover. (I’m not sure whether to chastise or applaud Kasdan for restraining himself from putting “I’m too old for this sh**” in the screenplay.) DeVito, meanwhile, goes 75 percent of the way toward his scheming, uncouth and ridiculous “Always Sunny” character, laying down the template for Dwayne Johnson to emulate him in the video game.
Decrepit curmudgeons in the bodies of Hart and Johnson is essentially one running joke, but dang if it isn’t a good one, starting with the inevitable gag where the duo marvels at how their joints move smoothly, rather than creaking.
Meanwhile, the girl who got Karen Gillan’s body as an avatar in “Jungle” gets her again, so she serves as the exasperated audience surrogate to Hart’s and Johnson’s “confused old guys” shtick. But the athletic black youth (Ser’Darius Blain’s Anthony “Fridge” Johnson) ends up in Jack Black’s body this time, and Black gets as many laughs out of this – never crossing too far into awkward stereotypes – as he did playing a girl trapped in his body in “Jungle.”
The special effects team gives us a treat with a centerpiece sequence involving spinning bridges and leaping killer monkeys. The overall villain – some sort of Norse-style mountain king (Rory McCann) – isn’t all that interesting, and “The Next Level” ultimately doesn’t sustain its momentum.
For most of its two hours, though, it’s a chucklefest. Hart and Black are top-shelf comedy actors, Johnson is also great even though his reputation doesn’t match theirs, and Gillan certainly keeps up as Ruby Roundhouse. If it was a bad movie, I’d take solace in getting to look at her, at least.
Although her “dance fighting” sequence here isn’t as great as in the previous film, where it’s such a funny surprise, the physicality of Gillan’s avatar is humorously epic.
At one point, Ruby executes the kind of video-game kicks where the fighter floats in the air a second longer than should be gravatically possible, reminding me of the 1990s “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” Nintendo games. I don’t know if that’s intended to be a laugh moment, but it’s one of my favorite little things in the film, as the CGI and wire-work stunt crews show their love for the medium.
There are a couple emotional through-lines in “The Next Level,” both of which are played straight down the middle. This is essentially more of “Welcome to the Jungle” rather than a new chapter. But give the filmmakers credit for this: After proving that watching other people play a video game can be fun, they now prove that watching the same people play the game again is still fun.