★★★★ - LONDON EVENING STANDARD
- Jumanji has a layered history. In 1981, it was a short children’s picture book by Chris Van Allsburg (who also wrote The Polar Express). Two children, Judy and Peter, find a magical board game. Its hazards (a lion, a stampede) spring to life in their house when rolled upon.
In 1995, it became an adventure film with a curious, multiply-recessed story. Robin Williams stars as Alan Parrish, trapped in the world of the game for 26 years after playing it as a boy in 1969. He is only released — now a shaggy man — in 1995, when Judy and Peter play the game again.
Together they confront the dangers it unleashes (monkeys, a crocodile, a big game hunter) in their New Hampshire town of Brantford. The film grossed $262 million (£200 million). An animated TV series soon followed.
In 2017, the franchise was rebooted with Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle. The board game has now become a video game, discovered in 2016 by four high-school students: two girls, two boys.
This time when they play it, instead of its dangers entering their world, they are sucked into its jungle-world, there becoming transformed into adult avatars, choicely played by Dwayne Johnson, Karen Gillan, Kevin Hart and Jack Black.
This being a video game, each has three lives to lose before being permanently terminated. It took $962 million (£731 million) worldwide, so here, promptly, is the sequel, again written and directed by Jake Kasdan, the 45-year-old son of the hugely successful writer and director Lawrence Kasdan (Raiders Of The Lost Ark, etc.). It’s fun and has been carefully tooled to be approachable without any deep Jumanji background, while gently extending its scope.
The four teenagers, nerdy Spencer, athletic Fridge (Ser’Darius William Blain), Martha and Bethany, are now college students and they reunite in Brantford for a holiday break. Spencer (Alex Wolff) has been having a bad time trying to keep up his long-distance relationship with Martha and when he gets home he finds that his Grandpa Eddie (Danny DeVito, brill), grumpily recovering from hip surgery, has moved into his room. Spencer is tempted to fire up the damaged Jumanji game console again and disappears into its world.
His friends, loyal and worried, follow him, and this time the tricksy game sucks in with them not only short, crippled Eddie but his estranged friend and former business partner who has come to visit — the lugubrious, slow-talking Milo (Danny Glover) too. Antiques!
So we get just enough of a prelude in the real world to establish these characters so that we can recognise them in their avatars — their surprising avatars, since the now-erratic machine has scrambled the body-swaps.
Martha is still the killer Lara Croft clone in shorts, Ruby Roundhouse (Gillan), but it’s ancient Eddie who finds himself the superman action hero, Dr Smolder Bravestone (Johnson), appreciatively stretching out and declaring his joints are “like butter!” and rejoicing in the thumps he can deliver. Superfit Fridge, meanwhile, is disgusted to find himself incarnated as portly scholar Professor Oberon (Black). “I’m the old, fat dude! At least last time I was black!” he complains.
Nor are these the only transformations, for in the game world there’s some glitzy water that swaps them around again from time to time. And there’s also an entirely new avatar in the mix — sulky, truculent thief Ming (magnetic Awkwafina). The high humour of all this depends, of course, on trading in stereotypes of age, race, and sex, as well as character traits — probably not popular among the “woke” but gloriously exploited here. Johnson also proves himself a fine comedian as well as a top basher.
So here’s a nicely judged extension to the Jumanji compound. It’s funny and diverting and it’s even found accommodation for the elderly. Thoughtful, that, in a family film.
- David Sexton, LONDON EVENING STANDARD
Jumanji: The Next Level is now playing at Light House Petone & Pauatahanui!