Deneb does Jumanji

“You think monkeys, mosquitoes and lions are bad? That’s just the beginning. I’ve seen things you’ve only seen in your nightmares. Things you can’t even imagine. Things you can’t even see. There are things that hunt you in the night… Then something screams… Then you hear them eating… and you hope to God that you’re not dessert. Afraid? You don’t even know what afraid is.” 

The Scoop: 1995 PG, directed by Joe Johnston and starring Robin Williams, Adam Hann-Byrd, Bonnie Hunt, Laura Bell Bundy, Kirsten Dunst, Bradley Pierce, Jonathan Hyde, David Alan Grier and Bebe Neuwirth.

Tagline: A game for those who seek to find a way to leave their world behind.

Summary Capsule: It ain’t Parcheesi. (Not unless your Parcheesi board routinely spits out lions at you.)

Deneb’s Rating: Three out of four out-of-shape rhinoceri.

Deneb’s Review: Looking back on my introduction to this movie, it couldn’t have been more perfect, sequentially speaking. Why? I saw it after I’d played the board game.

No, not that board game. (I’ll get to that in a minute.) As is the case with a lot of big-budget Hollywood blockbusters, Jumanji was the impetus for a metric crapload of merchandising, including (of course) a board game, which my parents bought for me.

How was it? Not bad. I think I enjoyed it more than my parents, who had been expecting something closer to the original book. Still, I remember having gotten a fair amount of fun out of it over the years, and it got me nicely primed to watch the movie.

Right, the movie. I suppose I should get to that.

The setting of Jumanji is a little town called Brantford. When we first see the place, it’s 1969, and it’s a pretty darn nice place to live, one of those idyllic New England hamlets that seem to show up so often in movies like this.

When we first meet him, our main protagonist Alan Parrish (Adam Hann-Byrd) is not having the best of times. See, his family have been big high muck-a-mucks in Brantford since time immemorial – not all that bad in and of itself, of course, but that sort of thing tends to draw unwanted attention when you’re a twelve-year old kid. What’s worse, his dad (Jonathan Hyde) is too busy running the local shoe factory to pay attention to him, and relationships between the two have been a bit fraught of late.

Things could be worse, though. At least Alan’s got this neat old board game he found – Jumanji! And hey, his friend Sarah (Laura Bell Bundy) is over, so they can play it together. Sounds fun, right?

Not… quite. See, Alan dug this game out of the ground (it makes sense in context) after it had been buried there for goodness-knows how long. Goodness or us, because we saw it being buried there a full hundred years ago by two boys who seemed scared out of their wits.

Why? Well, it seems that playing Jumanji is just a little more complex than, say, Pictionary. Oh sure, the rules are pretty darn simple – you roll the dice and move forward accordingly; first one to reach the end wins. Only in this game the pieces move themselves, and every roll of the dice results in a new challenge to overcome. And I don’t mean ‘stand on one leg while reciting the Pledge of Allegiance’ sort of challenges – I mean that the first move Alan makes sucks him into the game board, leaving Sarah to run away screaming. “In the jungle you must wait”, the game says – and wait he does.

Cut to 1995, and Brantford has seen better days. Seems that after Alan disappeared, his dad spent a little too much time looking for him and not enough time running his factory – and as a result, the place went bust. With its largest employer gone, the town has been slowly turning into an impoverished urban hellhole ever since.

What’s more, the Parrish mansion has been abandoned for years, until one day some new kids end up living there. Judy and Peter Shepherd (Kirsten Dunst and Bradley Pierce) live with their Aunt Nora (Bebe Neuwirth), who has hopes of turning the old place into a bed and breakfast. They’re more concerned with their own problems, though – they live with her because their parents died in a car crash, and ever since then Judy’s been a compulsive liar, while Peter won’t say a word to anyone but his sister.

Inevitably, they wind up finding a certain old board game, and figure hey, why not? Luckily for them, though, they have some help, as one of their first moves releases Alan from the game. Now played by Robin Williams, he’s grown up inside the world of Jumanji, a world of unimaginable terrors – and now that he’s back, he at first wants nothing more to do with the freaking thing.

He doesn’t have much of a choice, though. You see, the game that’s currently being played is the one he and Sarah (now played by Bonnie Hunt) started back in ’69, and in order to finish it, both of them are going to have to resume playing. Given that every role of the dice releases new dangers into the world, you’d think that they’d just call the whole thing quits – but they can’t. See, there’s one more rule in Jumanji: in order to get things to go back to normal, all you have to do is play through one full game. Always assuming, of course, that they can survive up ‘til that point…

Jumanji, as is par for the course on this site, seems to be one of those movies that have little-to-no middle ground – you either like it or you don’t, and some people reeeeeaaally don’t. However, there’s an equally large amount of people who do. I fall in the latter camp, but for some reason I seem to be in the minority so far as my friends and acquaintances go – most of those who’ve seen it either don’t care for it, or dismiss it with a casual ‘eh’.

Now, normally I’d go ‘let’s get the bad stuff out of the way first’, but you know what? I always do that. Gosh-darn it, I like this movie, and I’m gonna tell you why – not in a few paragraphs, but right now.

Let’s start with the obvious. For a PG-rated movie, this is a fairly dark and intense little flick. It’s not what you’d call violent or anything, but if looked at minus the ‘90’s Family Movie goggles, there really is a lot of freaky stuff goin’ down. If nothing else, the main characters are dodging some form of death and destruction almost constantly, and the film never shies away from the fact that, while they may have nimbly avoided it, there are plenty of other people off-camera who haven’t. Sure, one could argue that this is a bit of a cop-out – if it’s happening, why are we just being told about it? – but really, it makes sense. The players would be receiving most of this information second-hand anyway, and by merely implying what’s going on, your mind is free to exaggerate it as much as you want.

Furthermore, while not all of the special effects have aged well (more on that later), most of them are still pretty serviceable. In fact, were I willing to subscribe a good deal more cunning to the filmmakers than they likely possessed, I’d suspect them of having not only been aware of the inevitable effects obsolescence, but of having taken advantage of it.

After all, strict realism is not the issue here. These aren’t ‘real’ creatures and events that the game is summoning up, they’re from the realm of Jumanji, which seems to be some sort of nightmarish mash-up of every jungle adventure cliché that ever made it into a serial, comic book or Tarzan movie. Sure, real-life monkeys/lions/whatever don’t look or act much like they do here, but these are creatures of pure fantasy; it makes perfect sense that they’d look a little ‘off’. Going by that logic, the dated effects are a bonus.

Anyway, that’s just CGI. The more practical effects are handled really well. As the game goes on, the Parrish mansion gets more and more damaged and Jumanji-fied until it begins to look more like some sort of ruined jungle temple than a stately New England home. The same applies to the town of Brantford, which was (in ’95) none too pretty to begin with – it gets substantially less pretty as disaster after disaster crashes through its streets, with the effect that it too starts to resemble something vaguely otherworldly and sinister. This really helps the movie as a whole, and makes Jumanji’s more fanciful creations seem that much more credible – after all, they must pack a wallop if they’re doing this much damage, mustn’t they?

The thing is, though, that while all this surface stuff is very pretty to look at, it could be banished entirely, and it would still be… well, no; it would be a very different movie, but it would not be a bad one, in my opinion, and here’s why.

Jumanji is undoubtedly an effects-driven feature, and there are all too many of those that concentrate on effects first, story and characters afterwards. Not this one. This is one of the relatively rare effects-driven movies that have a genuinely good script at their back, with good characters thrown in to sweeten the deal.

Mind you, neither script nor characters are exactly revelatory, but they’re well-written and they work, giving the film a solid storyline that is driven by the people it involves instead of merely buffeting them about from event to event. The impetus for the plot itself may be the board game, but the shape of the plot is entirely due to the characters and the choices they make. Put different characters in this movie, and you would not get the same story; you’d get an entirely different one with a completely different feel to it. That’s not just good writing, it’s logical – if Jumanji is something that has passed from player to player over the generations, then this is just one of many stories and many games, and who knows how many people it has affected over the years. By concentrating on the individuals involved in playing the game rather than the game itself, you therefore make the game feel more menacing than ever. Not a bad trick, if you can pull it off.

I suppose that’s as good a cue as any to talk about said individuals. The logical place to start would be Alan, given that the movie kinda hinges on him.

Robin Williams, as I’m sure you’re aware, was in approximately eight trillion and five movies back in the ‘90’s. Inevitably, not all of them are exactly masterpieces, but the man can act if you give him the right film to do it in, and it seems Jumanji was just that, because he really hits one out of the park here. I’m not sure I’d call it my favorite dramatic role of his, because I haven’t seen enough of them to judge, but it’s definitely one of his best.

What Williams played a lot of were characters who never really grew up, characters who were technically adults but acted like kids. Alan Parrish is another one of these, but instead of (as was the case with most of them) being played for laughs, he’s played for drama instead – and it works surprisingly well.

Alan is no puckish, quip-spewing man-child; he’s someone who never had the chance to properly grow up. His years trapped in a jungle hellscape have netted him plenty of survival skills, but not much in the way of emotional development. At heart he’s still a kid, with all the immaturity that that implies, and it’s his struggle to progress past that which gives the movie its core. There’s still the occasional twinkly-eyed moment, which keeps him from being too downbeat, but this is still one of the darker heroic roles Williams has played (as well as being the closest he’s ever gotten to playing an adventure hero).

Sarah has a similar problem, but hers is much more commonplace – disbelief. She made the unwise decision to tell everyone exactly what happened to Alan Parrish, and as a result she’s been scorned as the town loony ever since. Hell, she’s come to think of herself as the town loony ever since. She got a chance to grow up, all right, but it sucked big-time.

As played by Bonnie Hunt (who I’ve always liked), she’s a quivering, neurotic mess for a fair chunk of her screen time, but not to the point where she becomes annoying or useless.  She does serve a purpose in the film, and that is as a steadying influence on Alan, to reign him in when he starts getting too obsessive about the game – which, after all, has literally been his whole life for the past 26 years. She’s the closest thing we have to a voice of normality in the film, which is ironic, given that said normality is the very thing that’s been denied her for most of her life.

Which brings us to Judy and Peter, another damaged pair. Their roles, understandably, are not quite as deep as the other two, but both are convincing as smart kids who have been trying to deal with personal tragedy in different (and unsuccessful) ways – Judy by being a smart-aleck and a fibber, and Peter by keeping quiet and sealing himself off. Both will be broken out of their shells via the events of the game, Judy becoming a bit more of a realist and Peter learning to take risks.

Both actors do quite a good job. I’m not sure what else Bradley Pierce has been in, but I like him here – he’s very confident in his performance and has a decent sense of comic timing, something you don’t find in a lot of younger actors. As for Kirsten Dunst, well… is it weird to say that this is actually my favorite role of hers so far? Yes? Well, I guess I’m weird then. What can I say, I like her in this.

In the role of the villain, we have Van Pelt (Jonathan Hyde again), a character I didn’t mention earlier because he doesn’t have a lot of effect on the plot. Nevertheless, he’s worth mentioning due to niftiness. He’s a nefarious Great White Hunter sort who has apparently been hunting Alan the whole time he’s been stuck in Jumanji – and following an unfortunate dice-roll, he’s picked up the chase in Brantford. It’s no accident that the same actor plays Alan’s dad, either – it’s pretty heavily implied that Van Pelt is on some level a kind of personification of Alan’s father issues (although he clearly predates the “in the jungle you must wait” business, so it’s possible that he’s different things to different players), and in order for Alan to survive the game, he’ll have to figure out how to beat him.

Van Pelt is an interesting character in that he’s really only one of the myriad dangers released during the game, and is treated as such, yet he’s the only one who has a human face, and he’s a great deal more persistent than most. Also, he’s a very specific danger – for all his trigger-happy nature, it’s made very clear that the only person he’s after is Alan; his only interest in the others is as bait. I like him. He’s a cool bad guy.

Finally, we have David Alan Grier as Carl Bentley, a figure from Alan’s past who now works as a cop. He’s a bit, er, shrill for my tastes in a few scenes, but he does do a good job as a supposed authority figure who is completely out of his league, and growing increasingly flustered and bewildered as to just what the hell is going on. Also, there’s Bebe Neuwirth as Aunt Nora, who… doesn’t do much, but she’s there, and Gary Joseph Thorup as a bully who picks on the younger Alan. His role is really pretty tiny, yet I was honestly a bit surprised by how menacing this kid was – it made me wonder if he’s gone on to play any other bad guys, ‘cause I’m sure he’d be good at them.

OK, so I guess I should talk about the bits that aren’t so great. Like I said, it really doesn’t matter to me, but there are certainly times when Jumanji shows its age. There is at least one freakin’ painful flub in the CGI, and if you’re anything like me, it will make you wince. Also, there’s a sequence midway through the film that seems shoehorned-in in the extreme; it’s clearly meant to be a Home Alone-esque kids-fight-the-villain-with-wacky-antics sort of thing, but that really ain’t Jumanji’s style, and it clashes with it badly. I suspect studio interference.

On the more basic level, if you don’t like ‘90’s family movies, well… this is a ‘90’s family movie. Don’t go into it if you can’t put up with a bit of cheese, as well as a smallish handful of roll-your-eyes moments (“It’s gotta be microchips” indeed). Additionally, I would have liked to have seen a bit more of Van Pelt, as well as having Judy and Peter’s neuroses make just a little more difference in their lives (they stop becoming factors in the plot pretty quickly), and if you’d like a few more details of just what Jumanji is and where it comes from, you’re going to be disappointed. (For that matter, given that the playing of the game is such an important element of the movie, it would have been nice if there’d been a bit more focus on the ongoing details – how far away the pieces are from the center, etc.)

But you know what? None of those things are deal-breakers for me. Jumanji is cool. It’s like a combination of an adventure story and a horror flick, but never so intense that children can’t watch it. There’s always something going on, but the action is never so unrelenting that you don’t have a chance to catch your breath, and the overall jungle adventure theme gives it an undertone of pleasant nostalgia. It’s a nifty little flick with a unique feel to it, and I always look forward to seeing it again.

Now, I do hate to write and run, but – well, there’s these dice that I rolled by accident, and, uh – armadillos. I’ll explain later. Bye!

And here we see the Great White Hunter, out for n afternoon stroll. What a quiet, pastoral scene – just him, his thoughts, a demolished house – hang on, wait a minute…

Intermission!

  • “Jumanji” sounds like a made-up word, but in fact it is not. It is a Zulu word meaning ‘many effects’.
  • Chris Van Allsburg, the author/illustrator of the original, helped contribute to the screenplay. From all accounts, he thinks the end result is pretty good, although quite different from his version.
  • There is a statue of a man on horseback in Brantford’s park labeled ‘General Angus Parrish’ – clearly one of Alan’s ancestors. His sword is in a display case over a mantelpiece in the Parrish mansion; at one point, Alan takes it and apologizes.
  • Did Peter ever even have the opportunity to grab the board?
  • During the gun shop sequence, the music playing on the radio is the Mexican national anthem. This was changed to something else for the Mexican release of the film, as Mexican law forbids the use of it for commercial purposes.
  • In the book’s version of the game, Jumanji is a “city of golden buildings and towers” at the center of the game board, and the object is to reach it. In the movie there is no such city, and Jumanji seems to refer to the jungle world as a whole.

Groovy Quotes:

Young Alan: The game thinks I rolled…
Young Sarah: What do you mean, “the game thinks”?

Repeated line: In the jungle you must wait
until the dice read five or eight.

Carl: Does he always dress like that?
Judy: Well, yeah, he’s a… vegetarian.

Van Pelt: You miserable coward! Come back and face me like a man!

Alan: You think monkeys, mosquitoes and lions are bad? That’s just the beginning. I’ve seen things you’ve only seen in your nightmares. Things you can’t even imagine. Things you can’t even see. There are things that hunt you in the night… Then something screams… Then you hear them eating… and you hope to God that you’re not dessert. Afraid? You don’t even know what afraid is.

Judy: What happened to you, you shave with a piece of glass?
Alan: What happened to you, the Clampetts have a yard sale?

Van Pelt: Don’t move, or I’ll blow yer blinkin’ brains out!

Sarah: A little rain never hurt anybody.
Alan: Yeah, but a lot can kill you!

Judy: It’s not real, Peter. It’s a hallucination.

Sarah: When I think of all the energy I spent visualizing you as a radiant spirit…

Alan: Harvest time!

Van Pelt: Stop your cringing, woman. I could have shot you at any moment.
Sarah: Then why didn’t you?
Van Pelt: You didn’t roll the dice – Alan did.

Carl: I should’ve been a fireman.

Alan: Why me? I don’t know. Everything about me he finds offensive; you’d think it’d be a waste of his time.

Sarah: You just saw three monkeys go by on a motorcycle, didn’t you?
Judy: Yes.
Sarah: Good girl.

Alan: What do I look like, a Ringling Brother?

Van Pelt: Not good enough, Sonny Jim!

Sarah: Don’t ever call me crazy, Alan! Ever. ‘Cause everyone in this town has called me crazy ever since I told the cops that you were sucked into a board game.

Sarah: Just ignore him, honey; he’s a Libra.

Alan: Suddenly I feel right at home.

Van Pelt: Right! It’s a cut, cut, cut!

Sarah: Whaaaaa!
Alan: What’s that? What is it?
Sarah: Nothing!
Alan: You don’t go “Whaaa!” for nothing!

Gun shop guy: You’re not a postal worker, are you?

Alan: Stop giving me things that come apart!

Sarah: You tried to cheat?
Peter: No! I tried to drop the dice so they’d land on twelve!
Sarah: Oh, OK honey, well that would be cheating.

Alan: 26 years buried in the deepest, darkest jungle and I still became my father.

Van Pelt: Gotcha, girly!

Sarah: You are so immature.
Alan: No, you’re immature!
Sarah: You are!
Alan: No, you are!

Judy: Price check!

Alan: I’ve got it! Colonel Mustard in the library with a wrench! (beat) “Clue”.

Van Pelt: End of the line, Sonny Jim. Game’s up.

Alan: It’s the law of the jungle, Sarah. You’ll get used to it.

If you liked this movie, try these:

  • Zathura
  • Hook
  • Toys
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14 Comments

  1. It ain’t Parcheesi. (Not unless your Parcheesi board routinely spits out lions at you.)

    So it’s Parcheesi.

    •Chris Van Allsburg, the author/illustrator of the original, helped contribute to the screenplay. From all accounts, he thinks the end result is pretty good, although quite different from his version.

    It’s happens. While Roald Dahl’s (justified) hatred of the film adaptation of The Witches is well-known, Gary Wolf actually preferred Who Framed Roger Rabbit? to his original effort. Though I don’t have any significant objections to the movie, I prefer the darker tone of the book (in spite of the horribly contrived climax).

    • I wouldn’t know. I don’t play Parcheesi.
      “The darker tone of the book”? You don’t think the movie is dark? I mean, yeah, a lot of the same sort of things get summoned and everything, but from what I remember, it ultimately IS just an innocent (if dangerous) game, the effects confined to one household and the game itself to a single night, as opposed to the decades-spanning, town-and-lives wrecking force of destructive chaos that is the movie version. True, Van Allsburg gives the book some gorgeously dark illustrations, which affect the tone and give a feeling of impending menace, but overall I’d say the movie is far darker.

  2. I remember when I first watched this in the theater I was scared to death there was going to be something Ouija-board related in it – mostly because I was there with my whole family (who would always change the channel whenever a storyline involving a Ouija board would pop up on TV), so I was tensed for any moment my mom might decide “that’s it” and hop up and march us all out of the theater. But really, the only “reference” is in the possible representation (and that’s up to interpretation anyway), and this movie’s been one of me and my family’s favorites for years.

  3. It’s odd, the things parents sometimes take issue with. My mother would not let anything remotely supernatural into the house, yet didn’t get why the tunnel sequence in Willy Wonka and The Chocolate Factory (www.youtube.com/watch?v=2Zail7Gdqro) freaked me right out.

  4. Pingback: Mutant Reviewers salutes Robin Williams | Mutant Reviewers

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