Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 1 hour 44 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG for Menacing Fantasy Action and some mild Language
Directed by: Joe Johnston
Written by: Greg Taylor, Jonathan Hensleigh & Jim Strain
(based on the book JUMANJI by Chris Van Allsburg)
Starring: Robin Williams, Bonnie Hunt, Kirsten Dunst, Bradley Pierce, David Alan Grier, Jonathan Hyde & Bebe Neuwirth
JUMANJI is one of three films featuring Robin Williams that I wore out on VHS as a child (the other two being ALADDIN and HOOK). It was also from an era where family entertainment took more risks and didn’t mind having an element of real danger in any threats being shown. Based on a children’s book of the same name, JUMANJI can be considered somewhat of a scary movie for children. It doesn’t feature any out-and-out monsters, but the idea of having two kids exposed to deadly jungle animals unleashed from a supernatural board game isn’t necessarily going to suit all ages. However, if a child can handle the likes of GREMLINS or HONEY, I SHRUNK THE KIDS, then this should probably be fine. Despite being nearly two decades old, JUMANJI holds up remarkably well.
The year is 1969. Alan Parrish is a young boy bullied by his classmates and living under the name of his rich factory-owner father. One day, Alan uncovers a mysterious board game called Jumanji buried at a construction site. After beginning to play Jumanji with his best friend Sarah, Alan disappears inside of the game and Sarah is chased out of his house by a pack of wild bats. Twenty-six years later, orphaned siblings Judy and Peter move into Alan’s old home with their aunt and stumble upon Jumanji. Two rolls of the dice later and they realize that the game possesses some kind of supernatural power and releases something from the jungle each turn (e.g. dangerous animals or natural disasters). It’s up to young Judy and Peter, a now-grown Sarah, and a returned fish-out-of-water Alan to finish the game and end the chaos.
I didn’t know that this film was directed by the same guy who made HONEY, I SHRUNK THE KIDS and THE PAGEMASTER. While those films aren’t perfect by any means, they inject some palpable danger into usually safe kiddie fare. This film is far from your average kid’s flick. JUMANJI is full of creativity and imagination. The story is fast-paced and danger lurks around every corner. The various threats are likely to get the intended reaction of frightening kids or even scaring adults in some cases. Besides some expected animals from the jungle (e.g. a lion, some monkeys, rhinos, etc.), we do get deadly plants and some freaky looking spiders that pop up near the end. Though the film is not nightmarish, it could easily give kids bad dreams from those spiders alone.
The characters are well-developed, despite a couple of iffy performances. Without a doubt, Robin Williams is the stand-out as Alan. He’s not so much a comedic figure, but a hero facing his fears. There’s an element of heartbreak to his character and Williams does the best he can with that. This is a kid who’s barely returned to the modern world and is adjusting to everything around him, including one of the more emotional moments of the film that winds up strengthening the relationship between himself and the two orphaned siblings. I didn’t care too much for Judy or Peter at the beginning as they come off as stereotypical kids. After the touching moment with Williams, I bought their characters. This is all in spite of shaky acting from both Bradley Pierce and Kirsten Dunst. Bonnie Hunt is solid as Sarah and delivers more comic relief than Williams, but it’s not enough to derail how dire the circumstances are in this film. Another wise move was casting Jonathan Hyde as both Alan’s tough father and a villainous hunter from the game.
The movie is not without a few other problems that come in two areas. The humor can be a bit much at points. A band of monkeys make repeated appearances in jokey scenes that almost feel like they’re from a completely different film. Also, there’s an extended sequence with Van Pelt (Jonathan Hyde’s evil hunter) in a store that was too forced and played like a bad slapstick routine. To be completely fair, the movie is based on an award-winning children’s book, so some of the silliness can be seen from the source material. The effects are a blend of practical and CGI. Most of these hold up, but some CGI hasn’t aged too well (e.g. the monkeys and a comical moment involving quicksand).
Distinct deviations were made from the children’s book and these benefit the movie as a whole. The story is more complicated, rules to the game of Jumanji drive everything forward, and the end result is as enjoyable for adults as it is for kids. The soundtrack is also great and conveys the danger/emotion of certain scenes very well, but not in any over-the-top way that might annoy viewers. Another cool thing is how little details occur around the characters. The movie doesn’t stay confined to within the walls of one house. The world outside plays a big part in the story and plot elements make it apparent that the perils of the game aren’t just affecting the main protagonists. A stampede of large animals running loose on the street and deadly bugs are attacking people around the town. It’s not only the characters’ lives are at stake, but the lives of everyone in the city around them.
As the film comes down to an exciting climax, Alan’s home is in shambles and the experience has almost worn the viewer to exhaustion in a very good way. I was sucked into the world of this movie. It felt like I had gone on for the ride with these characters. The performances aren’t stellar across the board and some of the comedy relief falls flat. Not all of the effects hold up. However, a great deal of respect should be given to JUMANJI as it’s a piece of family entertainment that takes risks and is original. Rewatching a movie like this makes me wish that more films today were original adventures that had big budgets thrown into them. JUMANJI is a rollicking adventure that stands the test of time!