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The Jumanji sequels – they are definitely not remakes, as both 2017’s Welcome to the Jungle and 2019’s The Next Level pay homage to the original movie, 1995’s Jumanji starring Robin Williams – are action-comedies. But are they really Christmas movies? And, more importantly, should you rent, stream, or buy Welcome to the Jungle and race out to see The Next Level?
Welcome to the Jungle starts with a scene in the late 1990’s – someone finds the board game that the people in the first movie threw away and brings it home. It’s given to Alex Vreek (actor uncredited) who looks at it, basically asks who plays board games anymore, and puts it aside. In the night while he sleeps, the game transforms itself into a video game and player – because the game is, while not necessarily evil, definitely not good, and the game has needs and it wants those needs met. Jumanji needs Players, and it will have them.
Alex wakes up, sees that the game has changed and, being a kid, plays it as opposed to calling an exorcist. And is immediately sucked inside.
20 years later, his house is now called Freak House because it’s horrible and rundown and only his father (Tim Matheson, uncredited) is still there, growling about the horrors of the world to whichever kids are nearby.
The kids that are nearby are 11th graders Spencer (Alex Wolff) and Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain) who used to be best friends until 7th grade when, we presume, Fridge grew way, way up and became a star school athlete and Spencer remained an asthmatic nerd.
Due to a variety of situations, Spencer, Fridge, popular but also smart girl Bethany (Madison Iseman), and smart quiet girl Martha (Morgan Turner) are all given detention, right before Christmas break. They have to clean out a basement room in the school and while doing so, discover the same game that Alex used, presumably given to the school by his grieving parents. Because Spencer is a video game enthusiast, he gets it working (no hard feat with this particular game), he and the others choose characters…and are immediately sucked into the game.
They emerge inside Jumanji as the avatars they’ve chosen. Spencer’s ended up in Dr. Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson), Fridge is Franklin “Mouse” Finbar (Kevin Hart), Martha is Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan), and Bethany is Professor Sheldon “Shelly” Oberon (Jack Black). They each have strengths and weaknesses they’ll need to use and be aware of in order to survive the game. Danger, hilarity, and meaningfulness ensue.
In order to escape Jumanji, they have to play the game and win, and they each only have 3 lives to do so. They find Alex who landed in Jefferson “Seaplane” McDonough (Nick Jonas) and the five teens work their way through the game.
Since there’s a sequel, it’s not too much of a spoiler to say that they succeed in escaping. What happens with Alex (now played by Colin Hanks, uncredited) is truly heartwarming, and the kids smash the player and the game so they can never trap anyone again.
The Next Level begins two years later, with all four now-lifelong friends leading somewhat different lives. Bethany is on an ecological tour of the world, Martha, Spencer, and Fridge are each at different colleges. Spencer is not having a great time at college, and going home for Christmas isn’t filling him with the joy it should – and seeing his friends is filling him with dread.
When he gets home, he finds his Grandpa Eddie (Danny Devito) is living with his mother and sharing Spencer’s room after a hip replacement. Spencer and Grandpa Eddie are both unhappy with life, and Spencer, who’s avoiding his friends, goes down to the basement…where he’s got the old broken Jumanji game.
The next day, the rest of the gang comes looking for Spencer, but not before Grandpa Eddie’s former best friend, Milo Walker (Danny Glover) comes calling first. Eddie and Milo are at odds and stay upstairs with Eddie being mean and bitter and Milo trying to make peace while the kids go down to the basement and discover that the game they thought they’d destroyed is now sort of working again.
They decide to go in after Spencer – but the game grabs Fridge, Martha, Eddie, and Milo without anyone choosing an avatar, and Bethany is left behind.
Now Grandpa Eddie is Dr. Bravestone, Milo is Mouse, Martha has managed to stay Ruby, and Fridge is Oberon. They need to find Spencer, but discover that they’re in a new level of the game – one that Martha and Fridge are not familiar with. They find Spencer after they pass the first level and find new clues – he’s inside master theif Ming Fleetfoot (Awkwafina).
While the new team tries to navigate these new levels – with what could be the most confused and worst players ever in terms of Eddie/Bravestone and Milo/Mouse, Bethany goes to the one person who might be able to help her get back in – Alex (Colin Hanks, this time, getting a credit).
Hijinks, hilarity, and meaningfulness again ensue.
Both of these movies are fun and kid-friendly – you need friends, believe in yourself, the power of teamwork, and more are all lessons learned – but they’re also adult-friendly. Watching Johnson, Hart, Gillan, and Black, and then Awkwafina, all play the roles as, in the first movie, the kids we’ve already seen established and then, in the second, the kids (most of them more than one kid) and the two oldsters, is hilarious and amazing. I saw some critics insulting Johnson’s portrayal when he’s “Grandpa Eddie” but as far as the hubs and I were concerned he was spot on, as was Awkwafina. The second movie doubles down on the “stick with your friends” theme, but the hilarity is still all there. And it was a joy to see the entire cast from Welcome to the Jungle back in The Next Level, down to small supporting characters, other than those who it just didn’t make sense to have there.
I have no idea why there are so many uncredited performances in Welcome to the Jungle, but if I had to guess, it was because no one was sure if the movie would be a hit or not (or the whoever assigns the credits was just having a really off-day, or it was a SAG thing…basically, it’s a mystery to me). That doesn’t happen in The Next Level, which is, presumably, nice for the actors. It makes it a lot easier to get the names straight when writing a review, so I’m grateful.
There are a lot of fun, sweet, and important touches in these movies that don’t necessarily get called out but really make the movies good and special (one example: Bethany gets detention because she made a phone call during a quiz…because she was done with said quiz first, meaning she might be self-absorbed but she’s also smart). And there is no way not to marvel, and laugh, at how Johnson, Hart, Gillan, Black, and Awkafina handle these rolls.
But, the big question: Why am I calling these Christmas movies?
Because they happen at Christmastime. In Welcome to the Jungle, the entire end sequence means nothing without this happening the day before Christmas break. In The Next Level, the kids are all only home and, more importantly, Alex is only at his parents’ house because it’s the Christmas holiday. The moral of the movies is a Christmas moral as well – take care of those who take care of you, forgive your friends if they make mistakes, help and support each other, even if it’s a risk to you, because they’d risk for you, love one another.
The ending of Level indicates another sequel is on the way. Whether it will pick up the moment Level ends (meaning, yes, it will also be a Christmas movie) or not remains to be seen. But get Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle and go out and enjoy Jumanji: The Next Level on the big screen. No matter what body you’re in, you’ll be in for a fun and funny adventure.
Both movies: 5 stars out of 5