Oscar says goodbye to Robin Williams by revisiting one of his most beloved films.
1995’s Jumanji is one of those family films that left a profound impact on me as a kid, largely due to the premise of a magical board game that unleashes wild animals and other jungle terrors into the real world. It was also down to the charisma of late leading man Robin Williams. As I return to it after the great man’s passing, I do notice its flaws, largely in the special effects and simplicity of the story. Yet, I feel the concept itself, a well-told message and the strong performances of our lead actors are enough to pull it through.
In 1969, a lonely and bullied boy named Alan Parrish (Adam Hann-Byrd) is drawn to the sound of drums coming from a buried supernatural board game that was entombed underground a hundred years earlier. That night, Alan has a falling out with his father, Sam (Jonathan Hyde), for wanting to send him to boarding school to continue the family business without letting Alan have a say in the decision, and prepares to run away from home. However, his close friend Sarah Whittle (Laura Bell Bundy) hears the drum beat of the game and they both learn of its magical properties when she unleashes a swarm of bats and Alan gets sucked into the dark jungles of the game until the dice reads five or eight. Sarah runs away as the bats chase her through the night, leaving the game unfinished.
In 1995, two orphaned siblings named Judy (Kirsten Dunst) and Peter (Bradley Pierce) have moved into the abandoned Parrish house and discover the game in the attic whilst their aunt is out of town. After a couple of turns releasing three giant mosquitos and a gang of monkeys, Peter rolls a five and frees Alan (Williams) and a lion. Alan is shocked to learn that his disappearance caused his parents to die in sorrow and the closure of his father’s shoe factory made the town fall on hard times, learning too late that his father loved him greatly. In order to stop the inhabitants of Jumanji from destroying his town, Alan, Judy and Peter convince Sarah (Bonnie Hunt) to join them in finishing the game, surviving its many challenges, and undoing all the damage caused by it.
The acting is all in all pretty good thanks to director Joe Johnston’s early experiences working alongside child actors. Williams puts in an emotional performance with Parrish; he balances a childlike sense of humour and a more hardened side from living in the jungle for twenty-six years. Hunt is enjoyably eccentric as Sarah, and has great chemistry with Williams. Dunst is both very subdued and amusing as Judy and Pierce is likeable as Peter. In the tradition of Peter Pan, Hyde plays Alan’s father with a stern authority and the Jumanji hunter, Van Pelt, with almost psychopathic viciousness. Also, Hann-Byrd is likeable enough as a younger Alan, but Bundy is not very engaging as the younger Sarah.
By now, most of the CGI has not aged particularly well, as seen with the monkeys, the rampaging rhinos and elephants, but the animatronics used for the vines, spiders, crocodile and the lion still hold up. Though dated, the CGI is still very energetic and creative. Much of the humour is rather corny, but Williams and Hunt put their hearts into the script and makes it leap off the page. The set for the vine-overrun house is incredible to look at and has an incredible rainforest atmosphere. Indeed, it does conjure up the sort of atmosphere a little kid would have when imagining a jungle in “Darkest Africa.” The jungle itself is never seen but Alan’s memories of it leave a strong impression that can fire one’s imagination as well as keeping the mystery of Jumanji intact. I like the sharp contrast in the time periods; in the 60s, the town is sunny and cheerful in an almost Rockwellian fashion, and in the 90s, the town is shown in the autumn filled with litter, closed-down shops, homeless people and graffiti. The weight of Alan’s disappearance hits the audience hard. The tone throughout the 1995 setting is very sombre and reflective, underscoring Alan’s growth from lost child into a man. I found the idea of Hyde playing both Van Pelt and Sam Parrish a smart move, showing Alan to still be afraid of his father, and having to overcome that in order to grow into manhood.
One of the more understated elements is the score by James Horner. Aside from the ominous drum-beat that marks the presence of the game and the threat of the Jumanji encounters, the score brings out the sadness of Alan discovering that his home has gone downhill. The score builds up a sinister atmosphere and gives the sense that the game is somewhat sentient. Even though the film isn’t very long, by the end you come away feeling you’ve gone through Alan’s adventure, and the happy ending feels very much earned.
The key character moments are a bit of a mixed bag, with more good than bad. We see Alan’s lack of courage, lack of self-esteem and his estrangement from his father, all beautifully played by Williams. Some people feel that Alan’s falling out with his father over the boarding school is rather rushed, but with Sam’s focus on family status and tradition over his son’s wellbeing, it’s more understandable. Some people have also highlighted the fact that Williams looks nothing like his younger self played by Hann-Byrd. My only real complaint is that, because of Judy and Peter’s introverted personalities at the beginning, it does feel hard to get connected with them at first. When Alan comes out of the game, followed by Sarah, the energy picks up and the story more elaborated, and it becomes easier to feel invested in the characters.
I’ve read some early reviews claiming that the visual effects and vicious encounters diminished the story and would frighten younger audiences, ultimately rendering the message of facing one’s childhood traumas moot. I beg to differ. To highlight my emotional attachment to this film, I must get personal for a moment; a couple of years ago, this film really helped me in bonding with my father after many months of growing apart. My dad saw a lot of himself in Alan as a child, and we both loved the ending where he reconciles with his father, again seeing much of ourselves in the two characters. I believe Jumanji works because children can be engaged by the idea of a magical board game, and later come back to find the more mature storytelling. Ultimately, it succeeded at being what it was… a family film with a unique premise and hopefully a rewarding message. It’s one of Williams’ best.