Jumanji: The Next Level (2019)

From the perspective of a Yuletide nerd, this is an interesting case. I actually wouldn't consider this a Christmas movie, despite the fact it technically passes my litmus test. The entirety of this film is set around the holidays, which is usually more than enough. But the specifics of the setting and story render the timing moot for the majority of the runtime, and neither the story or the themes are particularly connected to the holidays.

Both those points could probably be debated. The premise uses the holidays as an excuse to bring the characters together, and some of the themes - connecting with old friends and growing older - have a history of being associated with Christmas media, but I don't really buy that these are causally connected to the frame story visibly being set over the holidays. Frankly, I think the Christmas connection appears here for the same reason the last movie included a coda set during the same time: this series has always been released at Christmas (excluding Zathura, but I doubt many people realize that's even part of the Jumanji brand).

It's interesting to me that the reasons I wouldn't consider this a holiday film align with common arguments against Die Hard or horror installments set over the holidays, all of which I've long argued are absolutely part of the holiday canon. The difference is in these cases the holidays play a sustained role, while in The Next Level it feels more like a technicality. That said, this is obviously a situation where there's room for interpretation. And - again - I can't deny this qualifies according to my own definition. Regardless, it's an interesting enough case I thought we should review it here, regardless of which side of the line it falls on.

I should mention I wasn't a big fan of this movie's precursor, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle. I thought there were some fun comedic performances, but I never felt like it managed to balance its genres, nor did I think the video game aspects of its premise were utilized effectively. Seeing as this was made by the same director and was similarly received by critics and audiences, I expected to have the same reaction. Honestly, I only watched this because I'd heard it was set at Christmas.

But I found myself pleasantly surprised. I thought this one was significantly funnier than Welcome to the Jungle, and - while there are elements around the premise that still bother me (this isn't how playable video game characters are designed) - the story felt much closer to the plot of a cheesy game from the '90s.

Let's talk plot, or more accurately plots. The four main characters from the last movie, having now graduated high school and moved on to college, are supposed to reunite while visiting their hometown for the holidays. Spencer, the lead protagonist from part one, isn't doing so well. He and Martha are "on a break" due to his insecurities. Meanwhile, he's sharing his room with his visiting grandfather, Eddie, who in turn is avoiding his former best friend and business partner, Milo.

Seeking an escape, Spencer attempts to return to the titular possessed game, hoping that being Xander Bravestone again will give him the confidence he's missing. When his friends realize he's missing, they go looking for him. The game malfunctions and pulls in most of the cast, including Eddie and Milo, assigning them characters seemingly at random. Bethany (the one who appears the most healthy) is left behind for the time being.

In the game, we're given a new plot involving a warlord who's stolen a magic gem (a different one from the gem in the first movie), dooming the kingdom unless it's reclaimed. Unfortunately for everyone, the most physically effective character (Dwayne Johnson's Bravestone) is in the hands of Eddie, while the character with the most immediately important skills is given to the slow-speaking Milo. The two elderly characters are confused about the game, further complicating matters. Everyone's life count drops quickly as they try to navigate the game's storyline.

Eventually, they find Spencer, who's been assigned to Ming Fleetfoot, a new character portrayed by Awkwafina. Eventually, Madison recruits the last significant returning character from the last movie, Alex. Alex gets his old character back, while Bethany is placed in the body of a horse.

Milo and Eddie finally talk, and it's revealed that Milo is dying in the real world. We learn a little more about their falling out, and they make amends.

Before the final confrontation, the players find a pool that will allow them to switch characters, and the returning stars regain access to their original avatars. There's a big showdown, and everyone uses whatever powers they haven't had a chance to show off previously. They beat the villain and win, though Milo - now in the body of the horse (who it turns out is secretly a pegasus) - opts to remain in the game rather than return to a world where his time is limited. Fair enough, though it's odd no one asks if he wants to swap bodies first, since they just figured out how to do so.

Back in the real world, we get the usual wrap-up, including a cameo for Bebe Neuwirth to return as a version of the character she played in the '90s movie (though keep in mind this is a version from an alternate timeline than the bulk of that film).

As I said earlier, I found this one pretty delightful. I can't rule out the possibility this was in part due to lowered expectations, but I think there's more to it. Because the premise and characters were largely established, the sequel had more room to play.

That said, if you're grading on technicalities, the arcs were structurally weaker than in that movie. Almost everyone still got one, but they mostly felt trivial. It's also notable that Spencer was still treated as the primary hero in the last act despite being absent from most of the second. The closest we really get to a meaningful emotional journey centers on Milo and Eddie, and even that feels muted. I don't think this is a dealbreaker, particularly in a kids' movie, but it's worth acknowledging this doesn't really try to transcend its genre... with one possible exception.

The bulk of the movie calls for Kevin Hart to take on the role of Milo, which means he's effectively channeling Danny Glover playing a separate character. That's true for most of the movie's stars, of course, and all deliver good comedic performances. But Hart really shines in the role: you feel Glover through him. It's more than an impression - there's real depth there, despite the script coming up a little short in that regard.

Aside from that performance, there's nothing here that elevates the movie from "good" to "great", but there's no indication this was ever trying to be anything more than fun, disposable entertainment, nor is there a rule saying that shouldn't be enough. Set expectations accordingly (including those concerning its holiday credentials), and you might find yourself pleasantly surprised.