The “Jumanji” sequel once again provides good starring roles for Dwayne Johnson’s tattoos, Karen Gillan’s bare midriff and Jack Black’s beard.
I think it’s all right to dehumanize the players in this way, because they portray one-dimensional avatars. We’re back inside a computer game; actual humans have been zapped inside the game, emerging as larger-than-life characters with two or three distinguishing traits.
The 2017 hit “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” proved that with the right cast and a good rat-a-tat approach to comedy, this setup could click. “Jumanji: The Next Level” doesn’t want to do everything the same as the previous film — we’re out of the jungle and into the desert, and the avatars are embodied by different players this time — but basically the idea is identical.
The group of teens sucked into the game last time is still around, joined here by a couple of old-timers, played in the non-gaming sections by Danny DeVito and Danny Glover. They inhabit the avatars played by Johnson and Kevin Hart, which means Johnson does his best to suggest a crazed DeVito inside himself, and Hart scores some laughs by imitating Danny Glover’s genial tones.
If this sounds confusing, you’ll have to see the first movie. Even though it takes a long time to get going, “The Next Level” does little to familiarize newcomers to the backstory.
There are a couple of new avatars, played by Awkwafina (lately of “The Farewell”), who also gets inhabited by DeVito at one point, and a computer-generated horse. I think the movie misses a beat by not unleashing its actors more; it needs more Awkwafina-channeling-DeVito shtick and less attention paid to its meaningless plot.
Director Jake Kasdan, returning to duty, forgets that a big part of the appeal of “Welcome to the Jungle” was the engaging chemistry of the cast. Sequels put us back in the company of people we like, and Johnson, Hart Black and Gillan are plenty likable. Here, the wild chases and hordes of stampeding ostriches keep pulling us away from hang-out time with our bantering avatars.
Yes, ostriches. You know, those incredibly fearsome creatures. I don’t want to suggest that Kasdan and his co-writers got lazy about their ideas here, but a general sense of flabbiness prevails — or they’re parodying the weirdness of old-school gaming ideas (the game Jumanji is supposed to be a holdover from the late 20th century).
These diminishing returns do not bode well for a third film, where the heroes might be menaced by a herd of rabbits, or maybe some adorable baby capybaras. Which is another way of saying this series might already be out of gas.
“Jumanji: The Next Level” (2 stars)
A sequel to the 2017 hit, returning Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Jack Black and Karen Gillan as avatars in an adventure game. The actors are good company, as before, but we don’t get enough hang-out time with them, and the sequel doesn’t have many new ideas to juice up the premise.
Rating: PG-13, for violence
Opening Friday: Alderwood, Alderwood Mall, Cinebarre Mountlake Terrace, Everett Stadium, Galaxy Monroe, Marysville, Stanwood Cinemas, Meridian, Oak Tree, Pacific Place, Seattle 10, Thornton Place, Woodinville, Blue Fo Drive-in, Cascade Mall
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