Finally, here is a movie that proves my long-held theory a massive herd of 15-foot-tall stampeding ostriches would make for one scary and exhilarating chase scene.
Thank you, “Jumanji: The Next Level”!
Director Jake Kasdan and the primary cast members return for the sequel to 2017’s “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle,” and like that film, this is a rousing, funny, warm-hearted, old-fashioned adventure movie with more than enough charm to overcome the occasional overlong action sequence. (At least the ostriches don’t wear out their welcome, unlike certain other creatures that show up later.)
As was the case with the 2017 film (a sequel to the 1995 Robin Williams movie), this new “Jumanji” is basically a movie within a movie.
In “Welcome to the Jungle,” four very different high school students who are thrust together in “Breakfast Club” fashion in detention come across an old, 1990s-era video game console, plug it in — and presto! They become avatars inside an “Indiana Jones” type of adventure.
• Alex Wolff’s geeky and shy Spencer turns into Dwayne Johnson’s Dr. Smolder Bravestone, a courageous mountain of man who is also a brilliant archaeologist.
• Madison Iseman’s superficial, popular Bethany is transformed into Jack Black’s rotund, comic-relief cartographer, Professor Shelly Oberon.
• Morgan Turner’s smart but insecure Martha becomes Karen Gillan’s Ruby Roundhouse, a beautiful martial arts expert.
• Ser’Darius Blain’s “Fridge” is a towering jock who turns into Kevin Hart’s Franklin Finbar, a diminutive zoologist.
This time around, the quartet who forged a deep bond after they survived their Jumanji journey have scattered to various points — but now they’re getting together in the old hometown in New Hampshire.
Everyone’s excited about the reunion, with the exception of Spencer, who has drifted apart from Martha and isn’t even sure if they’re still together. He finds himself longing for a return to the game, in which his avatar had all those qualities Spencer finds lacking in himself.
You know where this is going. Back to Jumanji!
Ah, but now we also have a couple of old-timers along for the ride.
Danny De Vito is Spencer’s cranky grandfather, Eddie, who has temporarily moved into Spencer’s house as he recovers from hip surgery. Danny Glover is Milo Walker, who was once Eddie’s restaurant partner and best friend, until the partnership was dissolved and they stopped speaking to one another some 15 years ago.
Director Jake Kasdan (who co-wrote the script with Jeff Pinkner and Scott Rosenberg) figures out a way to transport the lot of them into the video game, with Grandpa Eddie becoming the heroic Dr. Bravestone; Milo turning into Franklin Finbar; the strapping Fridge trapped in the doughy frame of Professor Oberon, and Martha once again becoming Ruby Roundhouse.
This means Dwayne Johnson will try to convince us he’s Danny De Vito inside The Rock’s body; Kevin Hart will do something of a Danny Glover impersonation; and (trickiest of all) Jack Black has to sound like a 20-year-old, African American jock.
Hart is the most successful, Black nimbly manages to avoid being offensive while reminding us it’s actually Fridge inside this avatar, and Johnson, um, tries really hard.
The team is tasked with retrieving a magic glowing orb thingee, but of course that’s just the plot device to set in motion a series of increasingly dangerous escapades — and more important, it gives the real-life people inside the avatars the opportunity to face their fears, resolve their differences and learn more about themselves.
With the addition of the two old-timers, the team of avatars expands to include Awkwafina’s Ming Fleetfoot and — well, suffice to say the sixth avatar is REALLY different from the rest.
At times the human characters switch avatars (don’t ask), which gives Johnson, Black, Hart, Awkwafina et al., the chance to in effect play multiple roles, but also makes it feel as if we should be taking notes. (Awkwafina is pure magic when De Vito’s Grandpa Eddie inhabits the Ming Fleetfoot avatar. I’d be up for an entire body-switching movie starring those two.) It’s so confusing, the characters pause from time to time to remind each other (and the viewers) who’s inside which avatar.
The silly save-the-day storyline in “The Next Level” plays like a “Game of Thrones” episode channeled through one of those Bud Light “Dilly Dilly” commercials. At times the CGI-heavy action pieces are fun and clever; just as often, the running and the jumping and the fighting drone on in repetitive fashion. (A sequence in which our heroes do battle with hundreds of computer-created Mandrill monkeys threatens to bring the movie to a screeching halt.)
There are far more laugh-out-loud moments in the first half of “Jumanji: The Next Level” than in the second hour, but I liked the unexpected (if kinda trippy) spiritual element that comes into play late in the story. And whether we’re spending time with the real-world characters or their Jumanji avatars, they’re quite the likable bunch, and we’re rooting for them to score victories and find their way on the field of battle and in the game of life.