New Challenges and Adventures Come to Life in ‘Jumanji: The Next Level’

“Jumanji,” the beloved children’s story about a jungle-themed board game that springs to life, received a 21st century makeover when it became a video game in 2017’s “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle.” Now, Dwayne Johnson and the rest of the gang return for another round in the fun sequel, “Jumanji: The Next Level.”

In the last movie, a group of teens found themselves sucked into a real-life video gang after finding an old cartridge while serving detention in the basement of their high school. Nerdy Spencer (Alex Wolff) becomes archaeologist Dr. Smolder Bravestone (Johnson), his intellectual love interest Martha (Morgan Turner) transforms into martial artist Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan), zoologist Franklin “Mouse” Finbar (Kevin Hart) stands in for jock Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain), while Professor Sheldon “Shelly” Oberon (Jack Black) serves as the avatar for popular girl Bethany (Madison Iseman). Once in the game, they encounter a fifth player, Jefferson “Seaplane” McDonough (Nick Jonas) the avatar for Alex (played by Colin Hanks as an adult), a kid who has been stuck in the game for 20 years. After completing their mission and saving Alex, they vow never to touch the game again.

Flash forward to a year or so later, and the gang has gone their separate ways for college. Spencer should be having the time of his life at NYU. Instead, he’s dealing with a recent breakup with Martha, a thankless job at CVS, and the fact that he now has to share a room with his cantankerous grandfather, Eddie (Danny DeVito, doing what he does best) over Christmas break. Longing to feel more powerful and significant, he logs into the game, and when he doesn’t turn up for a reunion brunch with Martha, Fridge and Bethany the next day, they go in after him. However, things get complicated after Bethany gets left behind and Grampa Eddie and his old friend/former business partner Milo (Danny Glover, showing off his comedic chops) get sucked in instead.

“Jumanji: The Next Level” could have been merely a repeat of the last film, but what makes it feel fresh is a twist. Only Martha returns to her old avatar, while the others find themselves inhabiting new bodies. Johnson, Hart, Gillan and Black have a ball playing multiple characters, as another new feature allows them to switch avatars mid-game. Awkwafina is a much-welcome addition as Ming Fleetfoot, a new avatar who specializes in pickpocketing and lock picking. She’s hilarious first as Spencer, and later as Eddie. 

“Game of Thrones” actor Rory McCann is perfectly cast as the villain of the game, a “Game of Thrones”-esque warlord called Jurgen the Brutal. To win the game, the players must take from him a coveted jewel and show it to the sun. But the real challenges are in repairing the personal relationships, not only the one between Spencer and Martha, but also between Eddie and Milo, as the former is still bitter over the latter retiring early and leaving the restaurant they used to run together. 

At just over two hours, “Jumanji: The Next Level” is a tad overlong, but overall it’s a delightful family film offering full of laughs and adventure. Through the character of Finbar, there’s also some knowledge dropped, and one will never look at ostriches the same way again.

Jumanji: The Next Level” opens Dec. 13 in theaters nationwide.