It’s one joke, but that joke still works — for now

Orlando Sentinel - - IN THEATERS NOW - By Katie Walsh

In 2017, di­rec­tor Jake Kas­dan re­booted the ’90s fam­ily ad­ven­ture film “Ju­manji” by plunk­ing John Hughes-style teen char­ac­ters into a wilder­ness-set video game. “Ju­manji: Wel­come to the Jun­gle” was a crit­i­cal and com­mer­cial suc­cess, an­chored by the charms of me­gas­tars Dwayne John­son, Kevin Hart, Karen Gil­lan and Jack Black, and the unique plea­sure of watch­ing them all play against type. Kas­dan and com­pany (in­clud­ing cowrit­ers Jeff Pinkner and Scott Rosen­berg) know a good for­mula when they see it. So the se­quel, “Ju­manji: The Next Level,” sim­ply of­fers more and more of it: There’s more jaw-drop­pingly crazy video game hijinks, and es­pe­cially, more stars play­ing per­sonas vastly dif­fer­ent from their own.

The video game set­ting al­lowed a mot­ley crew of teens (Alex Wolff, Madi­son Ise­man, Mor­gan Turner and Ser’Dar­ius Blain) to choose their own avatars and see what hap­pens to them when they get to be some­one else for a lit­tle while. Self-ef­fac­ing nerd Spencer (Wolff ) learned his own strengths as the mus­cle-bound Dr. Smolder Brave­stone (John­son), but it was also hi­lar­i­ous to watch John­son play the in­se­cure and jumpy Spencer. How­ever, the break­out player of the “Wel­come to the Jun­gle” en­sem­ble was most def­i­nitely Black, who per­fectly in­hab­ited teen queen Bethany (Ise­man) in his portly car­tog­ra­pher’s bod. In “The Next Level,” Kas­dan dou­bles, even triples down on this con­ceit, to rather hi­lar­i­ous re­turns.

The film opens with the pals now in col­lege, re­turn­ing home for win­ter break. It’s a bit of a rocky open­ing, es­pe­cially since it feels like Danny De­Vito, as Spencer’s grand­fa­ther Eddie, and Danny Glover, as his long-lost friend and busi­ness part­ner Milo, have been seem­ingly shoe­horned into the dynamic. But the rea­son for their pres­ence all be­comes clear when Martha (Turner), Bethany and Fridge (Blaine) dis­cover that Spencer’s gone miss­ing. They once again trans­port them­selves into the game, ac­ci­den­tally bring­ing Eddie and Milo with them. This time, Fridge ends up in Black’s avatar, Oberon, while De­Vito and Glover find them­selves in the form of the strap­ping Brave­stone and tiny zo­ol­o­gist Fin­bar (Hart), re­spec­tively. If you’ve ever needed to hear John­son at­tempt (and some­what mas­ter) De­Vito’s sig­na­ture north­ern New Jersey ac­cent, you’re in luck (though there’s an­other per­former who later takes on the De­Vito drawl who is a bit more nat­u­rally in­clined to the cadence).

For a film that fea­tures such eye-pop­ping se­quences as ag­gres­sive man­drills on float­ing bridges, in­ex­pli­ca­ble blimps and an os­trich herd/dune buggy race, this is very much a per­for­mance-driven pic­ture. The sec­ond time around, there’s even less of a plot, with Rory McCann in some im­pres­sive postapoc­a­lyp­tic Night’s Watch gear snatch­ing the jewel they have to re­cover to win and es­cape the game.

The plea­sures of “Ju­manji: The Next Level” are not vis­ual or story-based, as they re­volve around the abil­ity of each of our stars and their abil­i­ties to do im­pres­sions.

Hart’s nu­anced mimicry of Glover is down­right in­spired, and the story of­fers up a few chances for the char­ac­ters to avatar swap, show­ing off the ac­tors’ abil­i­ties to em­body the dif­fer­ent jock/nerd/ cheer­leader/can­tan­ker­ous grandpa per­sonas. Once again, this is a one-joke movie, but for the time be­ing, that joke still has some tread on the tires.

MPAA rat­ing: Run­ning time: Opens: FRANK MASI/SONY

Jack Black and Karen Gil­lan in a scene from “Ju­manji: The Next Level,” which opens Fri­day. PG (for men­ac­ing fan­tasy ac­tion and some mild lan­guage) 2:03 Fri­day

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