SALT LAKE CITY — In 2017 I was very pleasantly surprised by how much I liked "Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle," despite not having high hopes for it going in. I grew up with original "Jumanji" film starring Robin Williams and was content to leave it there.
This year, with the release of "Jumanji: The Next Level," I had hoped there would be as much to love about it as the last one considering they were bringing back the same cast and working with a fresh take on the original source material.
"Jumanji: The Next Level" follows essentially the same formula as the last film, wherein the same group of people get sucked into a video game and have to survive video game peril as a team to exit the game world back into the real world. If they are killed three times in the video game world they die in real life, setting up a sense of urgency designed to keep the story moving while throwing in a twist.
In "Jumanji: The Next Level" we get the same starring cast from the last film — Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Kevin Hart, Jack Black, Karen Gillan and Nick Jonas — with the addition of Danny DeVito and Danny Glover as secondary characters of note.
If you find it hard to imagine the same formula working equally as well for two movies in a row you're not alone. Unfortunately, as sequels go, when you set a high bar you have to not only meet it, you have to exceed it. How did "Jumanji: The Next Level" do?
Surprisingly, the acting in this film was good enough to be a strong reason to like the movie. Given the premise of this film, a little more acting skill was required to give it the texture it needed work.
With several of the characters' real-life personas occupying different video game avatars, it allowed for some new possibilities in humor. The standouts this time around were Hart acting and speaking like Glover, and Black switching between a couple different personas during the film. Being the seasoned veterans they are, DeVito and Glover really did lend a depth to the film that was a little unexpected.
One exception to the good performances was The Rock trying to act like DeVito throughout most of the film. Instead of being funny, it was just kind of hard to watch — which is unfortunate, because I think they were banking on the real-world physical contrasts between the characters to translate into box office gold. Hollywood, for some reason, likes to pair DeVito with his polar physical opposite, like when he starred with Arnold Schwarzenegger in the movie "Twins" back in 1988.
The script wasn’t great, but some of the jokes they incorporated this time around were genuinely pretty funny and got a good reaction out of the audience. One, in particular, is a throwback to the previous film in which Hart's characters’ allergy to cake is exploited. A few other times throughout the film I found myself laughing out loud as a few unexpected lines caught me off guard in a good way.
Besides the noted exceptions above, the plot was not very clever. The whole reason for getting back into the game felt like lazy writing. In the first movie these ideas were original, but the second time around they felt redundant.
Once inside the game, the plot was essentially the same as the last movie and felt stale. Instead of originality, writers relied on twisting the same idea in a couple different directions, hoping to ring more eggs from the golden goose.
The writing and timing in this movie felt a little choppy. In the last film, the script flowed well and scenes felt seamless; this time it did not go as smoothly and some elements just seemed forced or out of place. The part where a winged horse is introduced into the game will leave you with more questions than answers, although the sentiment was touching.
Due to the unwritten law of diminishing sequel returns, even if "Jumanji: The Next Level" were equal in all ways to the last film it could not be as good. Since the idea is no longer new, and there has been an expectation set, the next film is always judged by the first film. On top of this handicap, "Jumanji: The Next Level" just didn't stack to "Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle,"in terms of quality, leaving us wanting a little more.
Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t not like the movie (to use a double negative). I just didn’t like it as much. If the franchise continues this trajectory, it will find itself sitting at the "Home Alone" table of holiday movies.