Review: Jumanji (1995)

If you didn’t grow up in the nineties, you need to know that the title of the film, Jumanji, is the name of a magical jungle adventure board game that plays out in real life. A player rolls the dice, her piece moves, and a riddle appears in the crystal ball in the centre of the board indicating what sort of ordeal the players must overcome. For instance, a troop of mischievous monkeys might appear, or quick-growing strangling vines, or a fierce monsoon, or a stampede of rhinos, elephants, and zebras. Most dangerous of all, a “great white hunter” might stalk and hunt you!

In New Hampshire in 1869, two boys ominously bury a chest. A century later, young Alan Parrish (Adam Hann-Byrd) discovers the chest, and finds a board game inside. After a fight with his dad, Alan and the girl he likes, Sarah Whittle (Laura Bell Bundy), start to play the game. They roll the dice, a swarm of bats attack, and Alan is sucked into the board, where he must “wait in the jungle” until another player rolls a 5 or an 8. The bats cause Sarah to freak out and run away, and Alan remains trapped in the board, his parents believing he ran away from home. In the 1990s, two newly orphaned children, Judy (Kirsten Dunst) and Peter (Bradley Pierce), and their aunt move into the big old house that was formerly the home of the Parrish family. The children discover Jumanji in the attic, start to play, and soon Robin Williams (Alan Parrish all grown up, at least in body) leaps out of the board game, dressed in skins and leaves sporting a wild beard.

Now I ask you, could any other actor sell a hairy jungle man-child with a hat made out of a giant leaf like Robin Williams? No matter the character, no matter how ridiculous the situation, Williams never half-committed to a role. Williams’ Alan Parrish cannot be counted as one of his finest performances, but the fantastical, action-oriented story largely works because Williams races ahead at full steam, energizing his child and adult co-stars alike, and milking the sentimental digressions for everything they are worth.

Admittedly, the board game serves as a narrative device for stringing together a series of set pieces involving exotic animals and jungle adventure. That doesn’t mean, however, that the idea of a board game that plays out in real life isn’t a great story concept. Celebrated children’s author-illustrator Chris Van Allsburg, whose book the film is based on, can have credit for that idea, but the filmmakers deserve credit for throwing in the character of Alan Parrish. Sure, it’s likely some producer just wanted to fit Robin Williams into the movie, but the idea of being trapped in a board game for twenty-six years unsettled me when I saw the film as a kid. What was even more affecting, though, was the fact that Alan‘s parents died thinking he had run away from home. On the fringes of Jumanji’s thin narrative lurk darker moments evoking childhood fears, both otherworldly and familial, from dark supernatural forces to losing your parents and unresolved family conflict. These evocative moments help make Jumanji something more than a collection of poorly-aged special effects. And because the early CGI hasn’t aged well, the wonder and excitement of the set pieces has diminished, despite director Joe Johnston’s clear direction. The central conceit—the board game—is what still really works. That, and the moments of fear. Having Jonathan Hyde play both Alan’s stern father and the big-game hunter trying to kill him (borrowing from the Peter Pan stage tradition of having the same actor play Mr. Darling and Captain Hook) magnifies and extends the conflict between Alan and his father.

There are moments of early-nineties folly though. The scene in which Judy and Peter cobble together an oxygen tank-propelled canoe to take down the hunter seem like tired additions meant to tap into Home Alone’s popularity. Worst of all, the ending undoes the events of the film in order to force a too-happy resolution.

Nearly two decades after its release, Jumanji is no children’s classic, but the darkness lurking around its edges and refreshing lack of irony help it remain a worthwhile two hours of entertainment for children and any adult who will admit it. The film also stands as a testament of two sorts: the first, to the vanity of CGI “breakthroughs”; the second, to Robin Williams’ tremendous ability to make us believe in incredible, ridiculous characters.

6 out of 10

Jumanji (1995, USA)

Directed by Joe Johnston; screenplay by Jonathan Hensleigh and Greg Taylor & Jim Strain based on the book by Chris Van Allsburg; starring Robin Williams, Jonathan Hyde, Kirsten Dunst, Bradley Pierce, Bonnie Hunt, Bebe Neuwirth, David Alan Grier, Adam Hann-Byrd, Laura Bell Bundy, and Patricia Clarkson.