I could watch an entire movie of Kevin Hart pretending to be Danny Glover. Throw in some Akwafina as Danny DeVito, and I’ll be there opening night.
The two comedians — and their impersonations — are both featured in “Jumanji: The Next Level,” which is the latest entry in the franchise that began nearly 30 years ago with Robin Williams.
Oh sure, Dwayne Johnson and the rest of the cast return after 2017’s reboot of the franchise, “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle.” Heck, Johnson is probably what you would call the “star” of “The Next Level,” but man, does he get overshadowed by Hart’s performance.
The film picks up a couple of years after the events of the 2017 film. After becoming trapped in the video game two years ago, Spencer (Alex Wolff), Martha (Morgan Turner), Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain) and Bethany (Madison Iseman) have moved on with their lives. Bethany is doing humanitarian work while the other three went off to college. They’ve remained BFFs, and Spencer and Martha even became a couple, at least for a time. They all swore they’d never return to the world of Jumanji.
But, Spencer is feeling listless. He’s home for a break and sharing a bedroom with his grandpa Eddie (DeVito), who’s recovering from hip surgery and avoiding his former best friend Milo (Glover). Spencer just doesn’t feel important or useful or awesome in his own skin and longs for the smoldering fearlessness of Dr. Bravestone (Johnson), his Jumanji avatar.
So, he decides to go back into the game, leaving his friends furious and with no other choice than to go after him. Unfortunately, things don’t quite work out the same this go-around, and Grandpa Eddie ends up in Bravestone’s body while Milo lands in zoologist “Mouse” Finbar (Hart). Fridge’s alter ego is Professor “Shelly” Oberon (Jack Black), while Martha finds herself in the familiar body of Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan). Bethany is left in the real world, but she’s determined to find a way to help her friends.
This is when the best parts of the film happen, and Hart’s comedic timing shines. If you’ve seen Glover, you know he’s not exactly a speedy talker. His voice is low and a bit slow, which offers plenty of fodder for Hart’s impersonation. It’s comedy gold … and lands the group in plenty of hot water when he shares useful information at a sloth’s pace.
Johnson, unfortunately, doesn’t have the same panache in his DeVito impersonation. It’s not bad, per se, but it’s a relief when the characters pull a switcheroo later on in the film. DeVito is loud, brash and full of sass. Johnson gives it his best shot, trying to sound like an opinionated smartass from Jersey, but he never quite gets there.
Awkwafina, on the other hand, is perfection. She already has that bit of wisecracking attitude DeVito hands out so well. Her characterization of DeVito is grumpy, a bit senile and everything you’d expect from someone channeling DeVito. She’s a welcome addition to the franchise.
This new avatar (Ming Fleetfoot) isn’t the only way “The Next Level” changes things up. There’s a new villain, Jurgen the Brutal (Rory McCann of “Game of Thrones”) and new obstacles the intrepid players must overcome if they ever hope to leave the game or survive, period. Nick Jonas returns as Seaplane, but at his side is another new avatar, a shiny black horse with a few secrets of its own.
I didn’t see “Welcome to the Jungle” when it first came out. I thought it looked pretty silly and was just another mindless reboot of a beloved story. But, a few weeks ago, I decided it was time. And, I found myself laughing despite my previous inclinations. For me, “The Next Level” not only raises the stakes for the characters in the film, but it offers a depth its predecessor didn’t have.
DeVito and Glover are given actual nuance here. All too often, aging actors are relegated to playing bit roles as grandparents or their age is used as the impetus for jokes. How many films do we need about elderly bank robbers or con artists? Yes, Grandpa Eddie just had hip surgery, which does get played with a bit, but he’s not just there for one-liners or old age jokes. In fact, I found myself tearing up a bit as Milo and Eddie’s relationship was explored and resolved ultimately.
The jokes are funnier and the bonds of friendship more important this go-around. The “real life” drama of Spencer & Co. is a bit awkward, but if you can overlook the teenage angst and Johnson’s bad impression, “The Next Level” proves to be a great diversion and a lot of fun.