”Whale oil beef hooked”. That was the exclamation of the small magical Irishman who lives in my brain having viewed Jumanji: Welcome To The Jungle and thoroughly enjoying it. As a consummate miserablist, I’m a sucker for wallowing in the existential torpors crafted by the likes of Bergman & Cassavetes, so I rarely give myself the chance to inject some cinematic levity into my life. My initial suspicion was that it would be a ropey attempt at resurrecting an old franchise, complete with lowest-common-denominator humour and an abundance of cheesy cringe. So I was genuinely made up when I found out that it was essentially a virtual reality mash-up of 1995’s Jumanji and The Breakfast Club, a coming-of-age story with good performances, many moving moments, and a great utility of gamer jargon and trivia that provided a lot of laughs. The sequel, The Next Level, loses its footing a little in comparison to the previous film, but it is nevertheless a smart and entertaining piece of bubblegum that manages to be even more deranged than the first film in its narrative developments.
After the events of Welcome To The Jungle, the gang are all leading different lives across the country from one another but have planned a reunion meal. Martha, Bethany and Fridge all eagerly anticipate seeing each other again, but poor Spencer’s enthusiasm for the meet could not be any more muted. Despondent after putting his relationship with Martha on hold and having to contend with working a shitty part-time retail job, he longs for the past…the past in Jumanji. Yep, you guessed it, the silly prat actually relocates the now busted and glitchy video game cartridge and decides to go back into it. To be fair, incessant combat with wild beasts and insane villains sounds a hell of a lot more invigorating than stocking shelves.
The rest of the gang are troubled by the fact that none have corresponded with him for some time, and elect to drop by his home. A new addition to the ensemble, Spencer’s grandfather Eddie, is played with marvellous, cantankerous insanity by the inimitable Danny DeVito, and a better choice for the role could not be had. While he welcomes to gang into the house to potter around trying to find Spencer, Eddie is visited by old friend and business partner Milo (Danny Glover). a professional disagreement years ago led to the acrimonious dissolving of their union, and the duo’s hilarious bickering forms a central conflict of the film.
The gang find the console in the basement, deduce what’s happened, and then it inexplicably sucks everyone back into it. Everyone in the house. As the game is now on the blink, and nobody has selected their avatars as they did the first time around, the character habitation is now completely unpredictable. And Spencer is no longer Dr Xander Bravestone…
While it superficially follows the same formula of Welcome To The Jungle in the fact that Jumanji is once again in mortal peril at the hands of a Big Bad, and only the gang can put a stop to it, its riff on the theme of friendship runs deeper and with even more emotional resonance the second time around, Spencer inadvertently putting his closest pals in the firing line because he missed his old life so much, and Milo & Eddie bitterly lamenting the fact they were once like brothers and constantly passing blame onto one another while teasing at a potential burying of the hatchet. It’s more Grumpy Old Men than John Hughes in this instalment, but it still packs plenty of effective lumps in the throat.
In a far scarier turn as a central antagonist (sorry Bobby Cannavale, I did like you as Van Pelt), Rory McCann plays barbaric tyrant Jurgen The Brutal (what other kind of moniker would he have?), essentially resurrecting his character of The Hound in Game Of Thrones, just more laconic and even more horrible, but curiously he retains his natural Scottish accent. Interesting inflexions for a Teutonically-named warlord inhabiting a tropical jungle, but there you go. Jurgen has stolen a mystical necklace known as the Falcon’s Heart, plunging Jumanji into a drought, and once again our heroes can only return home if they defeat him and return the sacred artefact to its rightful owners. While he is an entertainingly ludicrous villain in a family film, there are some choice moments with Jurgen where even I thought ‘Shit, that’s rather dark’. I like that kind of thing, but be mindful with your nippers.
Everyone is undoubtedly on very fine and funny form, including new avatar Ming Fleetfoot, played by adorable nutjob Awkwafina, but the primary strength of both films is Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson’s willingness to ruthlessly lampoon his beefcake persona. He did a superb job in Welcome To The Jungle of playing an awkward teenage nerd stricken by involuntary moments of ‘smouldering intensity’, and seeing him throw his hat in the ring once again in a rather different manner to before proves to be just as, if not more, hilarious and silly. I won’t spoil any of it, but it’ll make your jaw drop.
The only aspect I wasn’t overly taken with was a bizarre third-act development involving horses. Yes, I’m aware that is extremely vague and strangely worded, but I can’t give away any details bitch, not my style. I can just say that it was somewhat clunky, and a missed opportunity for an emotionally punchier denouement. Other than that, it is on equal levels of hilarity and exciting action as the previous film, with even more inventive use of its body-swapping novelty, and a meaty amount of pathos. Run out to see it (and also the previous film if you haven’t already), because I can promise you that you’re missing out otherwise.