MOVIE REVIEW: Latest installment of ‘Jumanji’ should be called ‘game over’

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(PG-13)

One and a half out of four stars

During the opening sequence in “Jumanji: The Next Level,” the front of a character’s smartphone is shown with the date “December 13, 2019” front and center. Although rare, this isn’t the first time a movie has flashed its own release date on screen, and it probably won’t be the last.

Although intended to be clever and self-aware, it’s just the first of many reminders to follow that we’re watching a quickly-assembled sequel which only exists for the purpose of being a blatant cash-grab.

The fourth installment in the “Jumanji” franchise, “The Next Level” will be familiar enough (if still possibly disagreeable) to the people who made the last installment (“Welcome to the Jungle”) a surprise $1 billion global smash. The filmmakers make the huge mistake of assuming first-time viewers will automatically know what’s happening Including the Guns ‘n’ Roses song “Welcome to the Jungle” does nothing to help.

It would be nice to say that if this had been made as a stand-alone flick, things would have turned out better — but that is certainly not the case here. It’s kind of like saying getting hit in the head with a brick three times is slightly better than getting hit in the head with a brick four times.

Unlike the original 1995 installment starring Robin Williams where “Jumanji” was a board game where animals came to life, “Welcome to the Jungle” featured an antiquated video game (think “Atari”) which allowed the players to assume the personalities of their avatars. The four high-school teens from “Welcome” return, now bound for college, and as they appear for only minutes at the beginning and end, the actor’s names are unimportant.

They are joined here by Eddie (Danny DeVito) and Milo (Danny Glover), former co-owners of a diner whose friendship hit the skids when Milo decided to retire. Despite Milo’s best reconciliation efforts, Eddie is still angry and is determined to hold on to his grudge.

Because he’s depressed, one of the teens re-enters the game and drags two of the others with him along with Eddie and Milo. Once in the game they are channeled through avatars portrayed by (the also returning) Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Jack Black and Karen Gillan. The SOLE interesting wrinkle in the story is having Johnson and Hart respectfully voicing Eddie and Milo.

While Johnson speaks with a passable cantankerous New York accent, the normally motor-mouthed Hart delivers his lines with slow, precise deliberation leading to one of the movie’s biggest (of about three) authentic laughs.

For about half of the running time, Johnson and Hart audition for “Grumpy Old Men 3.” But the problem is it’s only funny for about five minutes. For his part, Black first channels a black teen male, then a white teen female and regularly falls down – in other words, he turns in another variation of Jack Black. Faring the best (if that’s the right word) is Gillan, a still relative unknown actress with lots of potential who deserves better than to be “trapped” in a franchise so undeserving of her charm and range. Dressed as if she’s auditioning for yet another reboot of “Tomb Raider,” the scantily-clad Gillan is given the most to do — and she puts her best foot forward.

Returning director Jake Kasden (son of Lawrence) and his co-writers Scott Rosenberg and Jeff Pinker attempt to divert attention away from the inert and moribund screenplay by including huge set pieces taking place in a rain forest, a sprawling desert, a Middle Eastern-themed market, a maze of aerial foot bridges and finally a snowbound castle which could easily double as a “Game of Thrones” set.

Although the avatars can “die” (which they do) they also have the ability to come back to life. But even though this can only be done a limited amount of times, there’s little doubt anyone will ever run out of lives. Even the presence of a barbarian killer (Rory McCann) known as “Jurgen the Brutal” presents little in the way of palpable or eminent danger.

With all of its bells and whistles and camera mugging, the grand total of “The Next Level” is far less than the sum of its parts. We’ve come to expect rush-to-market Hollywood product to be wanting and unimaginative, and while “The Next Level” is far from the worst of its kind ever made, it’s still a huge disappointment on almost every possible level.

(Sony/Columbia)

This article originally ran on gwinnettdailypost.com.

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