Had you told me 5 years ago that I would be at the turn of a new decade, sitting in a press screening in joyful anticipation of a sequel to a semi-reboot like the childhood-classic Jumanji, I’d be sure you are no Doctor Manhattan. It is true that I loved the Dwayne Johnson-led reboot of the 1995 Robin Williams family film, having taken its spin at the concept by making a modern sequel where teens are pulled into an Atari-style video game rather than an anachronistic board game. Simple adventure ensued, as did the laughs, some minimal teen romance, but mostly the laughs. So with Jumanji 2 hitting theaters around the same time of year (I watched the first with my pre-teen nephews on our annual Christmas outing to the movies), I was full of nostalgia — both for 1995 but also for 2017’s Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle. What came was a simple adventure, along with the laughs, some minimal teen romance, and… a pang of discomfort it took a while to place.
Where Jumanji: The Next Level succeeds is, perhaps counterintuitively, its unoriginality. There’s little in the second film that isn’t found in the first, which was a $400 million domestic success. Minor details lead the group of friends to find their way back into the video game of Jumanji, needing to survive the adventure and beat the game to return safely to their lives. And just like it worked in the first, it worked in the second for simple reason: it’s easy family fun with built-in action from needing to survive the story within the story, and built-in laughs by means of impersonation. Each actor becomes their best impressionist, playing out teens that are nothing like them, from Jack Black’s vapid white-girl accent to The Rock’s nerdy insecurity. In The Next Level, the comedic haymakers come courtesy of Danny Devito’s thick Queens accent and slow-talking Danny Glover, both offering perfect fodder for parody.
Where Dwayne Johnson normally flexes his comedy muscle through incomparable ad-libs honed from his days of thrilling the crowd at WWE, he moves into the waters of parody and the man can swim just fine. Playing the avatar of a curmudgeonly Devito seems to be as much fun for Johnson as it is for audience laughing along. The same can be said for Kevin Hart and Jack Black, playing a slow-talking old Black man and fast-talking young white girl, respectively. The twist in The Next Level (if one is generous enough to call it a twist) is when the actors switch characters and are inhabited by someone else entirely, having to change their parody from, say, curmudgeonly old man to nerdy teen gamer.
Let’s play a game where you tell me when you would laugh, and when might you stop: a young Black man parodying an old Black man, a fat white comedian parodying a young white girl, a fat white comedian parodying a young Black man…
And there lies the challenge you might face — and might have always faced — when watching something like Jumanji that subtly challenges which caricatures make you laugh versus cringe.
It’s only appropriate that Awkwafina is newly introduced into the franchise as her career continues to grow, built in significant part on an discomforting history of her Blaccent in hip hop music videos popularized on YouTube. Her Blaccent is vanished and, don’t worry, is not to return in Jumanji (I won’t ruin which characters she comes to parody), but challenging feelings with the actress-comedian spur from the same foundation of what can make a laugh at Jumanji a complicated one.
So can I recommend Jumanji: The Next Level? If your love of adventure and YA comedy and romance make you likely able to kick back and enjoy the ride, then absolutely: Jumanji: The Next Level is every ounce of fun you found in the first. If you find yourself tepid to teen antics and have already seen the first, then no, The Next Level isn’t worth your time or ticket price. Like the Fast & Furious franchise, no addition adds anything completely new, so you can walk into your decision with eyes wide open. Sitting the the theater and laughing most of the way though, I’m definitely glad with decision I made. It’s silly, bombastic, and best viewed in theaters surrounded by others. Just roll your eyes at the Blaccent, and be glad that this time, thankfully, someone stopped Awkwafina.