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 the release of the semi-sequel Welcome to the Jungle, 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 solid enough that it holds up.
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 buried 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 from the adults walks the right balance of comedic and sincere, and the younger characters come across believably thanks to director Joe Johnston’s early experiences working alongside child actors. Williams balances a childlike sense of humour, as well as a more determined and emotional side from living in the jungle for twenty-six years yet you believe that he is essentially a boy in an adult’s body, and is ultimately the reason why the film is so beloved and remembered. Hunt is enjoyably eccentric as Sarah, harboring a similar level of childishness from repressing her memories of the fateful discovery of the game, and has good chemistry with Williams. Dunst is both very subdued and amusing as Judy and Pierce, while not having as much to do as his co-stars, is likable 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 providing humorous turns are David Alan Grier as Carl Bentley, a hapless police officer barely surviving some of the game’s dark consequences, and Bebe Neuwirth as Aunt Nora, in similar situations. Lastly, Hann-Byrd is likeable enough as a younger Alan, but Bundy is just okay as the younger Sarah.
By now, most if not all of the CGI animals have not aged particularly well, as seen especially with the monkeys, but the animatronics used for the vines, spiders, crocodile and the lion still hold up pretty well. Though dated, the CGI is still very energetic and creative, and the argument could be made that the animals’ more stylized and exaggerated appearances are deliberate, creating an uncanny valley effect. Ray Harryhausen himself often advocated against special effects looking too realistic to maintain that escapist and imaginative quality. The set for the vine-overrun house is incredible to look at and has a spooky atmosphere to it. Indeed, it does conjure up the sort of atmosphere a little kid would have when imagining a jungle in “Darkest Africa” with great use of fog and darkness. 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. Thomas Ackerman’s cinematography feels very much in line with the Amblin films produced by Steven Spielberg of the period. 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, with the dilapidated factory driving home visually the depth of Alan’s mistake.
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 creates the sense that the game is somewhat sentient. The action cues range from similarly ominous and grand to more manic and playful with the appearances of the monkeys and the pelican. 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.
Much of the humour is rather corny, ranging from slapstick to subtle aside glances, but the adult cast, especially Williams and Hunt, put their hearts into the script and makes it leap off the page. And yet mixed in with this variety of humour are some well realized emotional moments. The weight of Alan’s disappearance hits the audience hard because we see the consequences of his disappearance from his hometown of Brantford. The tone throughout the 1995 setting is very somber 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.
The key character moments work well for the most part. We see Alan’s lack of courage, lack of self-esteem and his estrangement from his father. Some may 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 well-being, it’s more understandable. Alan’s growth from boy to man is aided by the presence of Peter, whom he starts to show more respect and understanding towards throughout the film. 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. While not a long film, the pacing does drag a bit before the siblings discover the game. When Alan comes out of the game and they meet up with Sara, the energy picks up and it becomes easier to feel invested in the characters.
Looking back at some early reviews when the film first came out, many critics claimed 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. However, 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.
Despite recent concerns that due to the very outdated CGI effects and comparatively restrained directorial sensibilities compared to modern blockbusters, 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. Seeing it again recently with two younger viewers and seeing that it’s three main attributes; the sense of adventure throughout, the blend of (admittedly family friendly) suspense and comedy, Robin Williams’ subtle and heartfelt performance serving as the heart of the film helped it hold up in its own way. Ultimately, it succeeded at being what it was… a family film with a unique premise and hopefully a rewarding message. It deserves to be remembered well among Robin’s better films.