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5 best and 5 worst things in Jumanji: The Next Level

Just when they thought it was safe to go down in the basement near a wonky video game system that sucks people inside of it, plucky teens Martha, Bethany, Spencer, and Fridge have found themselves trapped inside a Jumanji video game once again, fighting for their lives from inside the bodies of some quintessential avatars. Jumanji: The Next Level picks up where 2017's Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle left off. Sure, Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Jack Black, and Karen Gillan return with their varied adventuring skills as Jumanji playable characters, but this time there's a new villain (Jurgen the Brutal) and new biomes (the desert, the mountains) with new, terrifying challenges.

A fun and breezy sequel to a hit reboot of the classic family film Jumanji virtually guarantees that Jumanji: The Next Level will wind up attracting more filmgoers than many other 2019 releases. But is it any good? Like most movies, the latest Jumanji chapter has its very good moments — and its disappointing ones too. Here are five of the most exciting things about Jumanji: The Next Level, and five things filmmakers could've skipped. 

Best: Kevin Hart's agile comic performance

Kevin Hart is obviously a funny guy — the man's a professional stand-up comedian and he's made a lucrative second career for himself as a movie star. Hart usually plays the same kind of character: ones that act and sound exactly like Hart does on stage. In Jumanji: The Next Level, Hart's screen persona is wildly different, because it has to be. Since the avatar he plays, weapons keeper and zoologist Franklin "Mouse" Finbar, spends a lot of the film inhabited by easy-going, talkative, retired restaurant manager Milo (Danny Glover in the "real" world), he has to act like Milo by way of Mouse. It's a tricky balancing act, and Hart succeeds, elevating his performance beyond just an impression of soft-spoken Glover. That would grow tiring after 45 minutes of screen time, so Hart doesn't try to do the voice exactly, but rather nail the vibe of an old man getting a huge kick out of traipsing around a video game and suddenly knowing dozens of animal fun facts which he'll spout off at random. Hart brings the comic relief, as is his way, but he also brings a sweetness and softness that's otherwise lacking in a movie full of action.

Worst: Dwayne Johnson's Danny DeVito impression

Dwayne Johnson can do it all. He can do old-school action in movies like Skyscraper and San Andreas, garner laughs in comedies such as Central Intelligence and The Other Guys, and handle more nuanced, emotional stuff like Gridiron Gang and Moana. And, of course, he's one of the most successful professional wrestlers of all time. So, what can't Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson do? He can't do Danny DeVito. The plot of Jumanji: The Next Level calls for Johnson to perform an extended imitation of the distinctively voiced star of Matilda and It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia. (He's a video game hero named Dr. Smolder Bravestone, inhabited by the personality of an old guy named Eddie, portrayed by DeVito.) While Johnson tries admirably, he just can't pull it off, and the results are awkward. Sometimes he just speaks loudly to evoke the spirit of DeVito, ignoring the New Jersey accent entirely. Once in a while, Johnson forgets to do any sort of accent at all. While his comic timing is on point, Johnson's swing-and-a-miss at the proper voice is hard to ignore.

Best: Karen Gillan can headline a movie

Since leaving behind her breakout role as Amelia Pond on Doctor Who in 2012, Karen Gillan has certainly worked steadily. She's a supporting player in the vast Marvel Cinematic Universe, almost unrecognizable as blue-skinned alien Nebula in two Guardians of the Galaxy movies and the final two Avengers installments. She also starred, however briefly, in the short-lived ABC sitcom Selfie. Portraying video game heroine Ruby Roundhouse in Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle increased her profile, and while that was a big movie, it still amounted to a supporting role. Gillan, and Ruby, take center stage in Jumanji: The Next Level. She's arguably the most prominent member of the all-star cast, leading the expedition through the game world and enjoying a couple of showcase action sequences, including one in which she dance-fights to Big Mountain's 1994 cover of Peter Frampton's "Baby, I Love Your Way." Gillan also provides the emotional center of the movie — with the personality of Martha inside, she tells boyfriend Spencer (in the body of Dr. Smolder Bravestone) that he's going to be okay, and that their relationship will be okay, too... all while scaling a mountain made of ice. Gillan completely takes over the movie, making good on the promise she showed a decade ago on Doctor Who.

Worst: The camera constantly leers at Karen Gillan

Karen Gillan triumphs with a positive, winning performance despite the way the script and filmmakers treat the Ruby Roundhouse character. It's understood that her character is supposed to be an example of unnecessarily sexualized female video game characters, heroines like Lara Croft who explore dangerous places and fight bad guys all while wearing impractically skimpy clothing. Ruby engages in a lot of stunts and combat dressed in a crop top and short-shorts, putting Gillan on display. Showing off a little skin is something to be expected from major movies, but it seems inappropriate for Jumanji: The Next Level, a family film in which the young female characters are just as viable as warriors and adventurers as the male characters. Making things seem extra sleazy is how Gillan is filmed. There are plenty of shots of her bare midriff and rear end, with next to no comparable exploitative photography of musclebound co-star Dwayne Johnson. And for her first appearance onscreen in the film, the camera creepily and slowly pans up from Gillan's feet, past her legs, and torso to her face.

Best: Awkwafina is a comic revelation

One of the biggest new stars in Hollywood is rapper and comedian Awkwafina. She nearly stole Ocean's 8 and Crazy Rich Asians from her more experienced co-stars in those ensemble comedies, and she repeats the feat in Jumanji: The Next Level. The gang of avatars head into Jumanji in search of the troubled Spencer, and they finally catch up to him at an oasis, where he's living and working as master burglar Ming Fleetfoot. Awkwafina comically replicates Spencer's personality and mannerisms. She truly shines when, after an avatar switch, Ming's body comes to be the home of Grandpa Eddie, Danny DeVito's character. Awkwafina's channeling of DeVito is hilarious and compelling — not only does she nail his personality and vocal patterns, but she walks and carries herself like him, too.

Awkwafina then takes her performance to, pardon the pun, the next level. In a scene that may open up a tear duct or two, the actress has to portray Eddie ending a feud with, and then saying goodbye forever to, his best friend, Milo... who happens to be inside of a horse avatar at the time. It takes some major acting talent to make that exchange not only not ridiculous, but moving.

Worst: A running joke means non-stop exposition

Jumanji: The Next Level seems to have two speeds: full-on, unrelenting action... and complete standstill. All movies require exposition, that pesky plot necessity through which the audience learns the "rules" of the world of the film. High concept movies, like, say, ones with the fantastical premise of a video game that sucks people in, require more setup. Jumanji: The Next Level constantly tells the audience what's happening — the main characters are trapped in a game (again), and they've got to get out of the game (again), and they're doing it all from the confines of avatar bodies (again). Mostly, all of this is repeated for the benefit of Eddie, the non-video-game-fluent elderly guy portrayed in the beginning of the film by Danny DeVito, who spends much of The Next Level inside of the body of Dr. Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson). It's a running joke that falls flat and proves funny on its first utterance. Eddie keeps forgetting — or just doesn't understand — that he's trapped in another body, in a video game. And so another protagonist must explain their shared predicament again and again and again...

Best: The rope bridge sequence

There's at least one very pleasant surprise in this movie that, because it's a sequel, wouldn't be expected to be all that ambitious. Jumanji: The Next Level features one of the most dazzling and inventive action sequences in recent memory. Evoking similar puzzling, extremely difficult challenges found in countless video games, the crew of avatars — with lives on the line — must traverse a treacherous section of some high, rocky peaks via a series of rickety rope bridges. The stakes are already high, but are then elevated a little more when the crew realizes they have to cross them in a specific order, lest they get stuck on a dead-end bridge that doesn't offer accessibility to another one. The avatars jump from bridge to bridge, some barely making it and some almost falling through, or all the way off to their potential doom. That's all tricky enough, but then the Jumanji game has to go and make it even harder, sending a horde of angry, bloodthirsty mandrils (they're kind of like baboons, as zoologist Finbar tells his cohorts) to hunt them down. The audience really does wonder if everyone will make it through this challenge alive.

Worst: Some shocking and tonally inappropriate material

Jumanji: The Next Level is ostensibly a film meant to appeal to the whole family. Not that there's anything wrong with swear words, dirty jokes, frank dialogue, or dark moments; they just feel jarring, misplaced, and totally uncalled for in a movie that's supposed to be innocuous enough for little kids to enjoy. There's a moderate amount of mild profanity threaded throughout Jumanji: The Next Level. Fridge (in the body of Professor Oberon, played by Jack Black) is perpetually apoplectic and voices his frustration through the use of the "D" word. Not to be outdone, grandpa Eddie (Danny DeVito) throws in a couple of "S" word utterances. These words just don't fit the feel of the movie, nor does a joke about the size of a horse's extra-large genitalia or an extended sequence about a eunuch, and precisely what that means. It also rings false that when Fridge switches avatars and winds up in the body of Ruby Roundhouse, he mentions that the first thing he did was fondle his own chest. While little kids watching The Next Level might get a thrill out of being privy to such grown-up content, there's another not-required bit that could truly shock them: After it's established that Jurgen the Brutal takes two loyal hyenas with him everywhere he goes, he kills them (offscreen) and tosses pieces of their flesh around.

Best: Rhys Darby as a living NPC

There's a whole different level of Jumanji: The Next Level: a gentle satirization of video game conventions and cliches. The film is structured like a video game, arranged into different worlds and areas, including a desert, a seedy village, wooded mountains, and naturally, at the end, a remote and punishing castle. The funniest video game send-up in the film, the one thing that makes viewers realize how ridiculous and unrealistic video games can be, is Nigel Billingsley, an NPC or "non-player character" that serves as a guide to the characters. Comic actor Rhys Darby (Flight of the Conchords, What We Do in the Shadows) is all in on his portrayal of the soulless, smiling, helpful Nigel as he moves the action along, urging characters to read instruction-giving letters out loud and congratulating the heroes on a job well done. And when he's in the scene but doesn't have a line, Darby quietly and perfectly stands on the periphery doing and saying absolutely nothing, just like a real (and off-putting) NPC.

Worst: So much wasted talent

Jumanji: The Next Level debuted in theaters in December 2019. The end of the year is second only to summer in terms of the big movie studios rolling out their biggest, flashiest potential blockbusters, and to get noticed in a crowded marketplace, Jumanji filmmakers stacked their cast with a number of major movie stars. The main cast consists of heavy hitters like Dwayne Johnson, Jack Black, and Kevin Hart, and their adventure through video game deserts and castles takes up the bulk of the film's runtime. 

Other well-known, well-liked, and bankable actors round out the Jumanji: The Next Level cast, but there just isn't enough for them to do. It's disappointing that the producers hired such notable people if they were barely going to use them. The great Danny DeVito and Danny Glover appear early in the film as Spencer's grumpy grandfather Eddie and his estranged friend Milo, respectively. Then, when their souls take up residence in the bodies of video game avatars, they disappear in favor of the avatar actors doing impressions of DeVito and Glover. Nick Jonas and Colin Hanks reprise their roles from Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, but only show up when the film is nearly over. Additionally, recognizable and reliable sitcom stars John Ross Bowie (Kripke on The Big Bang Theory) and Lamorne Morris (Winston from New Girl) appear inexplicably in tiny parts, delivering just a few lines each.