It’s called “Jumanji,” but a better name for the game in the movie’s title would be “Who the Heck Is Who Here?”
For starters, that sure looks like Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, all muscly, tatted-up and bald. Except, when he opens his mouth he sounds like Danny DeVito, all cranky and kvetching with a pronounced Jersey accent.
And how about that guy? Kevin Hart, from the look of him, sawed off and bearded, but when he speaks it’s in the manner of Danny Glover, at his most calm and deliberate.
Then there’s Awkwafina, but with the demeanor and Jersey accent of … Danny DeVito?
Identity-swap funnies, that’s what. And I do mean funny. Consistently. Fun for the whole family (though note that PG-13 rating; language, tsk), that’s “Jumanji: The Next Level.”
They’re all in the thrall of the magical video game that transports players — well, victims, actually — into strange simulated worlds where they face dangers aplenty that repeatedly kill them. Screaming plunges into deep gorges. Messy squashings by big boulders. Fatal chomps by outsized wildlife. They’re instantly reanimated, but if they experience three fatal encounters per player, they die in real life. Rules of the game.
Rules set forth in “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle,” which became a megahit in 2017 ($962 million worldwide at the box office) and spawned the present picture.
“Welcome to the Jungle’s” tale of four high-school kids (played by Alex Wolff, Ser’Darius Blain, Madison Iseman and Morgan Turner) — sucked into the game, where they’re transformed into avatar characters played by Johnson, Hart, Jack Black and Karen Gillan — has been, shall we say, raised to the next level by the casting of such well-known stars as DeVito, Glover and Awkwafina. The kids, all now in college, are back, but the main emphasis, as in the case of “Jungle,” is on Johnson, Hart, Black and Gillan, who all seem to be having an absolute blast mixing and matching their various characterizations.
Johnson, crotchety and contrary in DeVito mode, and Hart, uncharacteristically subdued and very effective as he channels Glover, have surprisingly meaningful moments as they act out the contentious relationship of the older men, longtime friends and one-time business partners now estranged. Back in the real world, DeVito’s character is a grandpa made crabby by the bodily breakdowns that come with advancing age — Catchphrase: “Getting old sucks!” — while Glover is philosophical and wants to repair their busted friendship before it’s too late. Both portrayals oblige Johnson and Hart to stretch their acting muscles in uncharacteristic directions and they’re unexpectedly effective as they do so.
Awkwafina, as is now becoming usual for her, steals the movie, getting the accent down and squinching her face into DeVitoish expressions such that, you feel, “Yes! By George, she’s got him! Got him to a T.” The performance is as different as can be from her lauded work in “The Farewell,” but taken together they indicate the impressive range of her talent.
Black and particularly Gillan are less prominent in the mix, with Gillan’s barely defined character, a martial artist, giving her not much to work with.
Things often get confusing with the stars jumping from character to character (one character is even, oddly, a horse) as director-writer Jake Kasdan and co-writers Jeff Pinkner and Scott Rosenberg (all back for this sequel) put them through their many metamorphoses at a dizzying clip.
The pacing is often chaotic, taking these characters from a scorching desert to a snow-shrouded mountain fortress to a threatening Mideastern-looking marketplace. Computer-generated set pieces include a wild ostrich stampede and a swarming attack by mandrill monkeys chasing our heroes across a multiplicity of suspension bridges swaying wildly over a bottomless chasm in the most obviously video-game-derived moment in the movie. Moments such as Johnson bashing bad guys through walls add to the action quotient.
It’s all undeniably silly, but satisfying in an overstuffed blockbuster sort of way.
★★★ “Jumanji: The Next Level,” with Dwayne Johnson, Jack Black, Karen Gillan, Kevin Hart, Awkwafina, Danny DeVito, Danny Glover, Nick Jonas. Directed by Jake Kasdan, from a screenplay by Kasdan, Jeff Pinkner and Scott Rosenberg. 114 minutes. Rated PG-13 for adventure action, suggestive content and some language. Opens Dec. 13 at multiple theaters.