If the whole point of a movie is that it follows the narrative logic of a video game, I wonder: does that mean that giving that film a "the same thing only with a few purely cosmetic tweaks" type of sequel actually counts as a strength? This question arrives on the back of Jumanji: The Next Level, the follow-up to 2017's Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (itself a sequel, barely, to 1995's Jumanji), a film about four teenagers getting teleported into an old adventure video game, where they found themselves occupying the bodies of Dwayne Johnson, Jack Black, Kevin Hart, and Karen Gillan. That movie possesses two pleasures, one more nominal than actual: first, there's the pure movie star joy of seeing those four people having a goofy lark playing teen stereotypes; second, there's the mildly tedious diversion of watching a pro forma CGI-driven adventure movie where everything basically "works" though none of it is creative or interesting.

The Next Level offers nothing that isn't promised by that subtitle, though maybe Expansion Pack would be even more accurate. On one level, it is exactly the same thing: Johnson, Black, Hart, and Gillan playing characters incongrous with their various physical appearances, and it is funny; plus some unexciting action-adventure boilerplate. The sequel brings back nearly all of the same creative team: director Jake Kasdan and two of his three co-writers, Jeff Pinker & Scott Rosenberg; cinematographer Gyula Pados; editors Steve Edwards and Mark Helfrich, now joined by Tara Timpone; composer Henry Jackman; and a lot of the same producers. Once again, the plot that happens once the characters are sucked into the video game world of Jumanji involves finding a magical gemstone that has been captured by a big boss with an army of expendable mooks. There are also, once again, many CGI animals.

But there are just enough things that have been rejiggered so that it feels at least kind of fresh, even though the creators know and you know that this is really just an exercise in "give me more of the thing I liked". So, again, a video game sequel. And no, I don't actually think that's meritorious, though the core of the experience still works, and I still had a good time with The Next Level. Just less of a good time, is all. The biggest changes this time around are in the way that human characters are matched to video game avatars. Nebbishy college freshman Spencer (Alex Wolff) secretly goes into the game first, and nobody know where he is for a good long bit; when we run into him, he's in a new playable character, cat burglar Ming Fleetfoot (Awkwafina, a very welcome addition to the cast). His shy maybe-ex-girlfriend Martha (Morgan Turner) has once again ended up as crop-top-and-booty-shorts-wearing martial artist Ruby Roundhouse (Gillan), but star athlete Fridge (Ser'Darius Blain) is now in the body of portly cartographer Prof. Shelly Oberon (Black), and chipper Instagram junkie and voluntourist Bethany (Madison Iseman) didn't make it into the game at all. Instead, her spot was inadvertently taken by Spencer's cranky grandfather Eddie (Danny DeVito), recovering from hip surgery, and Eddie's slow-talking former friend and business partner Milo Walker (Danny Glover), who take the form of muscular archeologist Dr. Smolder Bravestone (Johnson) and pint-sized zoologist Mouse Finbar (Hart), respectively. At a certain point, some of these identities get switched around, which ends up being especially good for Awkwafina.

The fun is what the fun was, though it's different fun, and sometimes less fun. Johnson's impersonation of DeVito as a stereotypical old Jewish man is, for one thing, quite a lot to deal with, and he doesn't do a whole lot to modulate it over the course of the film's extremely indulgent 123-minute running time (which includes a devastatingly boring opening act where we get the emotional stakes of all the real-world characters, as though anybody in the world gives a shit). So that's a bit of a drag, honestly. And it's not really fair to Gillan that she is, alone among the four leads, doing exactly the same thing as last time, though she does it perfectly well. Hart and Black are in great form, though; Hart, in particular, has maybe never been better in a movie than in his pitch-perfect embodiment of Glover's avuncular coziness, turned down to a glacially-slow pace. He's the obvious MVP, though not the only person in the cast who seems to be having an awful lot of fun (I mean, Johnson is unquestionably having fun, I just don't know that he's doing a good job of sharing it with the rest of us).

The other change is that the setting is rather different, and very much to the film's benefit. Welcome to the Jungle was a painfully straightforward "Darkest Africa" jungle adventure; The Next Level presumably sticks with that continent, given the fauna (some kind of mutant ostriches, and painfully fake-looking mandrills), though it also finds its way to a Central Asia-ish mountain stronghold where a quasi-Nordic strongman named Jurgen the Brutal (Rory McCann) serves as the new final boss. It tips the film far enough into outright fantasy that it ends up being a bit more imaginative than its predecessor, and a bit more willing to go wilfully goofy at the level of plot, and not just at the level of character. It also lets the filmmakers stage a setpiece involving rotating bridges over a mountainous abyss that is far more like an actual video game level than anything in the first film. And while that's not nearly enough to make it "good" (this is the point where the terrible mandrills show up, for one thing), at least it has a measure of distinctive personality.

Anyway, the whole thing is a quintessential lazy sequel: the same stuff to lesser effect, even if it's a bit stronger in this or that specific respect. It's more shticky than the last movie, less concerned with using its running time at all well - it's probably only like 12 minutes before they get back into the video game, but it is a dreary wasteland of 12 minutes - and completely disinterested in storytelling; if you don't have strong, specific memories of Welcome to the Jungle and the rules it established for its universe, entire scenes of The Next Level are likely to be completely illegible gibberish. Still, a big-budget movie that has absolutely no interest in being anything but a lark and an excuse to watch movie stars hamming it up big time is just as rare a treat in 2019 as it was in 2017, and even in reduced form, I can't shake the feeling that this is all a bit better-crafted and better-conceived than it had any particular need to be.