For starters, we’re reunited with the four high schoolers who learned to see beyond their social differences and bonded over the most intense day of detention ever. This time, we meet them a few months later, having already graduated to life beyond their small hometown.
Fridge (Ser'Darius Blain) is easily sliding to his routine as a college athlete, and Bethany (Madison Iseman) is living her best Instagram life; once-shy Martha (Morgan Turner) finds she’s socially adept in college — popular, even! — while Spencer (Alex Wolff) finds the complete opposite, feeling lost and small at NYU, leading him to quietly end his budding romance with Martha and slowly drop off the cheerful group chat.
As the four friends plan to get together upon their return home, Spencer finds himself feeling lower than ever, sharing his bedroom with his grandpa Eddie, who is played by Danny DeVito, and longing to feel that Dr. Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson) energy once more to give him the boost he needs before facing his happy, successful, cool friends.
Spencer is in luck (or something like that). Even though the group destroyed the game at the end of Welcome to the Jungle, Jumanji never dies. He fixes the game just enough to get sucked back in — but not enough to have any control over its whims. When the others realize where Spencer is and go in after him, they find the game is a touch different than it was before. It’s still the same classic video game concept, with Rhys Darby’s Nigel Billingsley on hand to guide them in exactly one direction and one direction only, but there’s an advanced mission, with more villains and brand new obstacles, giving The Next Level the kick it needs to stand alongside its predecessor.
“We really went into this sequel knowing that the bar was already raised, the expectations were high, considering how fortunately successful the first movie was,” Johnson, who also served as a producer on the project, told MTV News at a recent junket for the film. “So we wanted to raise the bar and we really just underscored fun, fun, fun, fun.”
The familiar avatars are back and ready to tackle high-stakes challenges in new terrain, with some added skills and weaknesses — Johnson adds that “bigger action and scale” were priorities this time around — but not everyone ends up in a familiar body. In fact, only Martha returns to smooth-fighting Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan). Fridge finds himself as cartographer Shelly Oberon (Jack Black), and Bethany didn’t even make it back into Jumanji.
Instead, Grandpa Eddie and his visiting ex-best friend Milo (Danny Glover) are unexpectedly sucked into the game as Bravestone and zoologist Franklin “Mouse” Finbar (Kevin Hart), respectively, meaning — and the importance of this cannot be understated — for a large portion of the movie, The Rock is giving his best DeVito, while Hart serves his best Glover.
“We bring our game to their game. It’s really fun,” DeVito said. “They embraced it and we embraced them.” The result is consistently entertaining. (There’s a reason impressions are a comedy mainstay!)
Of course, this means Spencer is… someone else. I’ll spare you the spoiler, but I will point out that Nick Jonas’s Jefferson “Seaplane” McDonough, Awkwafina’s mysterious cat burglar Ming, and a black stallion all make brief appearances in the trailer.
Yes, that is some serious name-dropping. It’s no Avengers: Endgame, but the cast of Jumanji: The Next Level is even more stacked than the already-bulky Welcome to the Jungle. And no actor goes to waste. Each of the returning faces keeps the story familiar enough to feel like you already have a relationship with these characters — which is a hallmark of any sequel — while the addition of new characters in and outside of the game makes it feel fresh enough that you couldn’t have possibly expected this outcome.
There’s also a multi-generational aspect in the sequel that wasn’t present in Welcome to the Jungle’s Breakfast Club-inspired storyline, offering new lessons to be learned by all. “There’s a rad message about, ‘Hey, you can be a hero at any point in your life, as long as you’re still alive,’” Black said. “You can still kick ass and save the world.”
Broadening the story in this way, along with the flick’s December release, makes it easy to watch with the entire family. Spencer’s problem with comparing himself to others is just as relatable as Eddie and Milo’s friendship strife. After all, we’ve all felt a little lost and isolated at some point; that’s probably the reason we’ll never get tired of stories that remind us to reserve judgment and accept one another. As simple as it seems, it’s a message that’s worth repeating — especially if it’s being repeated in an irreverent, loud, New Jersey accent.