CHILDHOOD REVISITED – JUMANJI


Mufasa/Aslan is about to f*ck your sh*t up.

Mufasa/Aslan is about to f*ck your sh*t up.

Jumanji – (1995)

Director: Joe Johnston
Starring: Robin Williams, Jonathan Hyde, Kirsten Dunst, Bradley Pierce, Bebe Neuwrith
Screenplay by: Jonathan Hensleigh, Greg Taylor, Jim Strain

I always hated the portrayal of children in movies. Sure, I could accept the occasional precocious preteen with careful insight on love or romance—because, let’s face it, most rom-coms are stupid enough that even 6 year-olds can sprout out inane plot points to assist in linking romantic leads—but when it comes to all-out, life-or-death adventures, the amount of cheese inputted into young leads have always irked me. I don’t care if film is dealing with pirates, ninjas, wild animals, invisible goblins, or members of Scientology: no matter how old you are, if shit hits the fan, you’re going act like it.

Which brings me to this movie and my next one, The Goonies—two films that take wildly different approaches to portraying kids participating in dangerous situations beyond their control. A brief aside—my favorite R.L. Stein Goosebumps book was the first one, Welcome to the Dead House. Why? Well, of all the books in the series, that one had not only the children in danger of whatever supernatural element sought to kill them, but the parents as well. Other books played the inane, clichéd game of magical versions of “the Boy Who Cried Wolf,” leaving moronic preteens to save the day while mothers and fathers rolled their eyes at them and their “wild imaginations.”

Even as a child, these distinctions were clear to me, the reason of which will make sense as I re-watch these films. There’s a lot of contextual notions involved, so while this may be specific in my case, I still hope I can present a reasonable argument.

NOSTALGIC LENS: Jumanji, from what I remember, kicked ass. The silly premise made way for some awesome and scary situations, including a crazed hunter who’s after the Most Dangerous Game (children being a close second). Also, it had some pretty nifty CGI for animals and other crazy special effects. What won me over, though, was the full threat of the situation, of children AND adults being very nearly killed, but ultimately coming together to save the day. No brainacs or fat-but-lovable young’uns here.

DOES IT HOLD UP: Other than the special effects, which do not hold up well at all, Jumanji is pretty solid. In fact, I’m willing to say that the film is thoroughly awesome.

It’s a lot to swallow though, mainly because a lot of the plot is awkwardly divulged in what appears to be nonsensical ways. But for the most part, it comes together strongly by the end. And with enough serious chaos that threatens everyone’s life, even the background characters, it’s easy to ignore that awkwardness and get drawn into the action.

Even the story works to the movie’s favor: while there’s a little pointless filler here and there, most of it works very well to create some real childhood drama. In 1869, some kids with cheesy acting skills bury the Jumanji game (complete with one saying the “May God have mercy on his soul” cliché). In 1969, a troubled young boy named Alan is harassed by local kids, fights with his father, and all around has a shitty day. He finds Jumanji in a construction site (only kids can hear the drums from the game’s “aura”) and plays it with Sarah, a friend of his. He gets sucked into the game, and Sarah runs away from bats.

1995 rolls around, and Judy and Peter Shepherd, two siblings that lost their parents in a car crash, find the game (via the drums) and starts playing it, unleashing hell, but also attracting Alan and Sarah back to the real world, where the four of them work together to finish the game and make all the weird and crazy stuff go away forever.

For a movie made simply to market a board game (and not too well, either—Judy blurts out “there’s no skill involved”), the filmmakers put a ton of work into making some rather deep, disturbed, children characters, based on their downtrodden childhoods. Peter rocks the creepy silent treatment, while Judy pathologically lies to everyone. Sarah was in therapy for twenty-six years to CONVINCE herself she wasn’t crazy and everything that happened was imaginary. (It’s really sad, too, realizing that she essentially lost EVERYTHING trying to convince the world what happened). And Alan, who managed to stay alive within the jungles of Jumanji all this time, tries to regain his missed childhood but is forced again to jump into the realm of adulthood. Somewhere, child psychologists are masturbating.

Of course, being a PG movie with Robin Williams, most people aren’t paying attention to the intricate details of character development. They want to see if Williams’s stupidity is either genuinely funny or annoyingly so. As far as I’m concerned, Williams is rather constrained here, as well as he can be in a movie where a board game makes jungle dangers come to life. In fact, his childish antics adds an interesting layer of depth to a character forced to survive in a desert all this time, and still pines for his childhood and missed parents.

But again, when the proverbial dice is rolled, the shit hits the fan, and this entire town in New Hampshire is affected, not just the kids themselves, complete with full-scaled riots and looting – and as someone who lived in NH, I assure you, there aren’t this many people in any town, nor would they riot, LA style (apologizes – this is mostly clips from the movie, with Turkish subtitles – and TIVO):

Even the hunter, Van Pelt, although not wholly memorable, really ups the danger by his willingness (or lack of scruples) to shoot at kids. Real villains don’t have soft spots, ya’ll. (As a added note, Van Pelt is played by the same person that plays as Alan’s father. Another nice little bit of subtle symbolism there.)

So the four roll, run, roll, run, and so on, until the last turn, where not only does Williams face his fears (ie, his father), he takes them head on, wins the game, and reverts everything back to 1969, where the young Williams has a chance to make amends and change the future. Wow. It’s Terminator 2!

IN A NUTSHELL: Yeah, the acting isn’t top notch. And there’s this inexplicable expositional scene at the beginning where some homeless dude in the rundown Parish factory somehow explains everything that happened to Alan’s father after his disappearance. But the action is great, the emotions are genuine, and, goddammit, I’m willing to admit I teared up a little when the now-married Sarah and Alan met Peter and Judy (with their living parents) for the “real” first time at the end, sans any knowledge of what happened. For you see, when the stakes effect everyone, even the cheesiest dramatic moments seem real.

Stay tuned next week when I contrast this one with The Goonies!

August 31st: The Goonies
September 7th: Super Mario Bros. The Movie

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  1. #1 by Some Chris Van Allsburg fangirl on September 1, 2009 - 10:46 pm

    “For a movie made simply to market a board game…”

    Wow. Good job inadvertently dissing my favorite author/illustrator.

  2. #2 by kjohnson1585 on September 1, 2009 - 11:31 pm

    Hello, Miss fangirl.

    I apologize if that came out wrong. I don’t mean any ill-will towards Chris Van Allsburg, his works, or his fans. I have never gotten the opportunity to read his books; I’m sure they are great.

    However, my point stands, in that the movie itself was marketed purely in relation to the board game. Not a single trailer, I believe, made mention of the literary work from which it was adapted.

    If you wish to drop some knowledge on me and other readers about the book, perhaps how the movie related to it, I’d love to learn more.

  3. #3 by Some Chris Van Allsburg fangirl on September 8, 2009 - 7:13 pm

    And the hilarious thing is that I was not even aware that there was a board game. Huh.

    Anyway, the original printed-page _Jumangi_ is Caldecott award winner and one of the most downright beautiful books ever created. The movie takes the basic premise of a board game that comes to life and, uh, that’s *it*. IMO, it’s an excellent example of why not every book needs to be a movie.

    As far as Van Allsburg and his books, _Mysteries of Harris Burdick_ is an excellent place to start.

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