When Sony sought to create a sequel to "Jumanji," the beloved 1995 classic starring Robin Williams and Bonnie Hunt, audiences and critics were initially skeptical.
However, the studio was able to turn the story on its head, shifting it from a quaint board game to a larger-than-life video game adventure. It brought in celebrity heavy-weights like Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, Kevin Hart, Karen Gillan, Jack Black and Nick Jonas, all playing against type, and won the hearts of moviegoers.
"Jumanji: The Next Level," the sequel to 2017's "Welcome to the Jungle," appears to have still captured some of the lightning in a bottle that led its predecessor to nearly $1 billion at the global box office. Still, some balked at the film rehashing once-unique elements and muddying the plot with too many additional characters.
It currently holds a Rotten Tomato score of 68% from 108 reviews.
In the film, the teen team of Bethany, Fridge and Martha are sucked back into the video game after Spencer escapes back into the game. However, the broken console also brings along Spencer's grandfather Eddie (Danny DeVito) and Eddie's friend Milo (Danny Glover).
Johnson, Hart, Gillan, Black and Jonas return as the avatars from the previous film.
Already, "The Next Level" has garnered $52 million at the box office from its international debut last weekend. Analyst currently expect ticket sales to fall with a range of $35 million to $55 million for the film's domestic debut. "Welcome to the Jungle" opened to the tune of $36 million in 2017.
Here's a rundown of what critics have said of "Jumanji: The Next Level" ahead of its opening:
Mark Kennedy, a writer for the Associated Press, called "Jumanji: The Next Level" a "largely successful, if more unbalanced ride," than "Welcome to the Jungle."
He noted that there is quite a bit of body-swapping that occurs throughout the film and not all of the performances by the cast are particularly spot on for who they are meant to be portraying. The special effects, it seems, were also less than seamless.
"Like all sequels, the second suffers from not having the delicious surprise of the first, but the seed to a third film is hinted at in the closing credits, which is more than the first film promised," he wrote.
Kennedy gave the film two and a half stars out of four.
"The plot is insane, as you might expect from an adventure video game quest, and takes our ragtag group from arid deserts to snowy mountains in search of a jewel that will restore the natural order. There are elements borrowed from "Mad Max," "Raiders of the Lost Ark" and "The Lord of the Rings." [Director Jake Kasdan] has a deft hand with both humor and action plus he's a great craftsman, nicely handling plot details and returning roles by Nick Jonas and Colin Hanks."
"To be sure, the world did not need a follow-up to 'Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle,'" Sara Stewart, writer at The New York Post, wrote near the top of her review for the new Jumanji film.
Still, she said, the addition of DeVito and Glover helped freshen up the story.
Stewart did not provide a rating for the film, but pointed out that Gillan's character, an avatar in the game, remains scantily clad during the film, something that many pointed out during "Welcome to the Jungle." In the previous film, the outfit was used as a gag and commented on sexism in the gaming industry when it comes to female characters.
"Do you really need to know what the quest is, or how many landscapes the group travels to? Nay (and there I'm quoting verbatim from a horse, who is at various times inhabited by a couple of the characters). But for a generation that never got its own 'Freaky Friday,' at least director Jake Kasdan's sequel serves up a handful of body-swapping laughs."
Mary Sollosi, writer at Entertainment Weekly, said that some of the body swapping "can lead to moments in poor taste," but that overall the film does a clever job of reassigning identities to the actors.
Hart, in particular, she said was a clear standout in the film with his slow-talking impression of Glover.
"Jack Black brings back his pitch-perfect teenage princess routine from the previous film, and Awkwafina, as a new avatar whose role we won't spoil, is uniquely suited to hers as well," she wrote.
Sollosi said that the film is packed with quite a bit more humor than the first. She gave the film a "B" rating.
"But maybe, like adolescent heroes, movie franchises go through growing pains, too; if Sony comes up with a third boss to best, there's plenty of room in Jumanji to let more feeling in alongside the action. Because even if The Next Level doesn't set a new high score, it still proves this franchise isn't out of lives just yet."
For James Berardinelli of ReelViews, "The Next Level" was a bit of a missed opportunity for Sony.
"The mistake may be bringing back the real-world characters from the first movie – nerdy Spencer (Alex Wolff), jock Fridge (Ser'Darius Blain), hot babe Bethany (Madison Iseman), and mousey Martha (Morgan Turner) – when their stories have already been told," he wrote in his review. "After all, the 'draw' isn't the kids playing the Jumanji game; it's their virtual avatars."
Still, Berardinelli said the most enjoyable aspect of the film was watching the actors interpret the people who were inhabiting their bodies.
He gave "The Next Level" two and a half stars.
"It's probably fair to argue that 'The Next Level' delivers close to what viewers expect from it. And, although the freshness is diminished, the likability factor for the actors is off the charts, meaning that audiences will accept a dip in quality for the privilege of spending a couple of hours with these people. Expect a few laughs but not much in the way of genuine excitement."