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Review: ‘Jumanji: The Next Level’ is more of a retread than an upgrade

Jack Black, Karen Gillan, Awkwafina and Dwayne Johnson in “Jumanji: The Next Level.”
Jack Black, left, Karen Gillan, Awkwafina and Dwayne Johnson in the movie “Jumanji: The Next Level.”
(Frank Masi)

Two years ago, amid the glut of a busy holiday movie season, I opted not to review “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle.” You won’t read a less interesting opening sentence in this newspaper, I know, but bear with me. Catching up with the movie several weeks and several hundred million dollars in box office later, I realized that my decision had been — well, not a mistake, exactly. But at the very least, a missed opportunity to weigh in on a surprisingly effective year-end diversion, a studio-engineered cash cow that’s a pretty good time before it more or less evaporates from memory.

As directed by Jake Kasdan, “Welcome to the Jungle” took the mysterious board game introduced in Chris Van Allsburg’s splendid picture book (the basis for the not-so-splendid 1995 Robin Williams movie) and upgraded it into a Nintendo-style console entertainment. Said game then proceeded to suck four teenagers into its virtual safari-themed world, recasting them as fantasy avatars played, in nimbly elastic comic performances, by Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Jack Black and Karen Gillan. It was a body-swap comedy at heart, a movie of gratifyingly analog pleasures beneath the obligatory CGI razzle-dazzle.

And speaking of obligatory: I promised at the time I wouldn’t overlook the sequel, and so, well, here we are. I wish I could muster more enthusiasm, and so, I imagine, did the filmmakers. “Jumanji: The Next Level,” directed by Kasdan from a script he wrote with Jeff Pinkner and Scott Rosenberg, is an amiable retread passing itself off as an upgrade. It reunites the original cast and adds some welcome new faces, a couple of fresh conceptual wrinkles, two hair-raising action scenes and some unearned lump-in-the-throat sentimentality. It’s not bad for an hour’s entertainment; too bad it runs for two.

The setup piles a lot of stuff you don’t care about onto a bunch of characters you may not remember. They are Spencer (Alex Wolff), Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain), Bethany (Madison Iseman) and Martha (Morgan Turner), four teens headed home for the holidays after months away at college. Spencer’s feeling bummed out, having recently split from Martha; on hand to offer him some crotchety counsel is his grandfather, Eddie, played by Danny DeVito, who starts applying the comic electrodes in his very first scene. Whether he’s taking a well-timed fall or working wonders with a sleep-apnea machine, DeVito is the kind of effortless comic presence who can enliven even the hoariest premise.

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Having DeVito turn into Dwayne Johnson, however, is another story. To sum up: Sad Spencer makes the beyond-imbecilic decision to play Jumanji again, and before long, he and his friends have been sucked back in, this time accompanied by Spencer’s grandpa, Eddie, and his estranged friend and former business partner, Milo (Danny Glover). But to everyone’s confusion, the player-avatar combos have been shaken up this time. Martha, at least, is still the intrepid “killer of men,” Ruby Roundhouse (Gillan), but this time it’s the strapping Fridge who inherits the body of portly professor Dr. Shelby Oberon (Black), while Spencer gets stuck with a brand-new avatar, a wily thief named Ming Fleetfoot (Awkwafina, never not welcome).

Kevin Hart and Dwayne Johnson in the movie “Jumanji: The Next Level.”
Kevin Hart and Dwayne Johnson in the movie “Jumanji: The Next Level.”
(Frank Masi)

Adding to the confusion, Eddie finds himself playing the muscly hero Dr. Smolder Bravestone (Johnson), while Milo is now the diminutive zoologist Mouse Finbar (Hart). Got all that? Really, the proper way to summarize the plot of “Jumanji: The Next Level” would be with a diagram or a flow chart. All you really need to know, since each avatar effectively assumes their player’s personality and mannerisms, is that the Rock gets to chew on a New Jersey accent while Kevin Hart speaks in leisurely run-on sentences for a change. The grumpy-old-men ventriloquist routine feels silly and shoehorned in but, like the random reallocation of avatars or the late-breaking sight of Nick Jonas riding a horse, it does inject a bit of novelty into what would otherwise be an exhaustingly formulaic romp.

The game itself is determined to provide a fresh experience too. As explained by “Jumanji’s” long-winded non-player guide (an amusing Rhys Darby), the plot has gotten an upgrade, demanding that the players work together to steal (yawn) an all-powerful jewel from someone named Jurgen the Brutal (Rory McCann, the Hound on “Game of Thrones”) and his merry band of tundra-dwelling primitives before it’s too late. Beyond the jungle are new worlds of wonder — a desert crawling with killer ostriches, a gorge crawling with killer apes — to discover and nearly expire in. Naturally, the three-life limit is still in effect, promising one comically bloodless death scene after another.

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To prevail in the end, our heroes must ensure that they’re fully in sync with their avatars, a task that will require some more in-game body swapping — and will entail the usual low-key body-shaming (poor Jack Black). The actors are as up to the challenge as ever; it’s fun trying to figure out, purely based on gestures and expressions, who’s playing whom. It’s way less fun having to endure Spencer and Martha’s relationship woes or Eddie and Milo’s soggy “Bucket List” routine. If the Jumanji masterminds insist on all this artificial sweetening, can the next level at least be Candy Crush?

‘Jumanji: The Next Level’
Rating: PG-13, for adventure action, suggestive content and some language

Running time: 2 hours, 3 minutes

Playing: In general release


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