★★★½

Jumanji: The Next Level reunites writer/director Jake Kasdan with his co-writers from the previous Jumaji (Jeff Pinkner and Scott Rosenberg) and the entire original cast, both in and out of the game. Add Danny DeVito, Danny Glover, and Awkwafina into the new mix, and you have a film that stands solidly next to Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle.

The teens that originally played the game together have graduated and gone on to college. Now the semester is over, and they're all looking forward to meeting up again. The one exception is Spencer, who has lost confidence in himself. Instead of meeting up, Spencer chooses to go back into the game, where he feels like he is something more than who he is in real life. When his friends find out what he has done, they are determined to rescue him from a new, more deadly adventure in the desert. In the process, they accidentally bring some new players with them.

The story is solid, with everything one would expect from the sequel. The adventures are both comical and harrowing, and the pace remains solid throughout. Best of all, it explores the bonds of friendship and family, how they change over the years (and even decades), and what tests them. The lessons never seem forced in a script that moves them along steadily.

Kasdan once again brings a unique style to the direction, taking an excellent set of actors along for the ride in such a way that the audience never really sees the actors over the characters. His talents combine so well with those of the cast that the relationship seems symbiotic. Johnson smolders, and Gillan kicks butt, while Black and Hart provide information and comic relief—all exceptionally well-timed. Awkwafina, as Ming, is a hilarious addition to the cast, particularly in the latter half of the film after she undergoes a change of character.

The score combines with tight cinematography to keep the film at a pleasant pace, although there are a few scenes that seem to drag on a little longer than necessary. The CGI and special effects blend well with the live action rather than interrupting it, adding a contemporary video game dimension to the tale.

Jumanji: The Next Level is a funny, entertaining film that can be enjoyed by audiences of all ages. The combination of a solid script, exceptional direction, and an outstanding cast will not leave attendees feeling deserted in this next level.