Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle was a delightful big screen surprise. The original 1995 film perhaps has a better reputation than it deserves and so few had high hopes for its return, despite a glittering cast including Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Jack Black and Karen Gillan. Released without a great deal of fanfare in the same week as Disney behemoth Star Wars: The Last Jedi, the film won great reviews and managed an impressive haul at the box office, coming within a whisker of hitting the billion-dollar mark worldwide.
So, with that in mind, there were very real expectations for the sequel. Could lightning strike twice, or would this be the lazy follow-up everyone had prejudicially pegged the previous one to be?
Thankfully, Jumanji: The Next Level is every bit as inventive as its predecessor. Returning director Jake Kasdan, who also co-writes with Scott Rosenberg and Jeff Pinkner, returns to the same comedic groove and delivers enough subtle changes to the formula that it feels like these characters are more than justified in returning for another adventure.
It's Spencer (Alex Wolff) who's the catalyst for the gang's return to the game, isolated during his time at college and drifting from long-distance girlfriend Martha (Morgan Turner). He longs to be the heroic, confident Dr Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson) again and so attempts to repair the broken game, becoming trapped within it as a result. His friends follow him in the hope of getting him back, but find themselves catapulted into different avatars than before and with Spencer's grandfather (Danny DeVito) and his slow-talking friend (Danny Glover) also along for the ride.
The simple shift of forcing the avatar characters into a different personality gives the film a fresh coat of paint and proves to be a compelling comedic device. Karen Gillan's Ruby Roundhouse is effectively promoted to leader duties, inhabited again by Martha and largely given the role of keeping everyone else on task. There's another underwritten villain – this time played by Game of Thrones star Rory McCann – in the mix, but the main mission here is to find Spencer and get him out of the game. Meanwhile, Dwayne Johnson is having a tonne of fun playing Danny DeVito, while Kevin Hart steals the show completely by channelling Glover's charming, but oblivious personality to perfection.
It's the propulsive comic energy that keeps The Next Level rocking, even as it replays some of the beats of the first movie. There are characters being killed off in shocking ways – watch as someone is pecked to death by an ostrich – and various stages of escalating danger to battle through while maintaining as many of their three lives as possible. This is made more difficult by the fact Hart keeps wandering into trouble and DeVito's character proves to be an irresponsible user of The Rock's many physical gifts. Many, many people – and ostriches – are punched in the face.
The dynamic between the characters brings the laughs consistently, with scenes of sharply-written dialogue peppered within some genuinely impressive scenes of death-defying action. The inventive set pieces range from an ostrich chase in dune buggies to a vertiginous journey across a series of moving rope bridges which make the Hogwarts staircases look simple to navigate. Every time there's a risk of things settling into formula, Kasdan throws in a surprise, most notably in the arrival of Awkwafina as a new avatar – agile cat burglar Ming Fleetfoot. It would be wrong to spoil which character inhabits her, but she is the highlight of the third act thanks to her pitch-perfect evocation of one of the cast members.
Not everything works, with the relationship between DeVito's Eddie and Glover's Milo explained via a series of lengthy exposition dumps that don't always land and the relationships between the younger characters mostly sidelined other than via a few furtive glances. However, Kasdan finds a surprisingly potent emotional conclusion to the various threads and indeed to the narrative as a whole, culminating in a final few scenes which nod neatly to the original 90s film while teasing another return to the jungle.
Jumanji: The Next Level might lack some of the surprise factor of its predecessor, but it's every bit as funny and engaging – and it benefits from a cast who clearly relish the ability to spread their acting wings in an environment that has pretty limitless potential. In fact, I think it might even be better than the last one. It feels odd to say this, but the gauntlet has been laid down for Star Wars...