On Jumanji

Jumanji is one of the films I grew up with, and liked quite a lot, because it was a really fun movie. According to The New York Times review:

In “Jumanji,” a movie based on a book about a board game, the players are endangered by evil monkeys, giant insects, rampaging jungle beasts and vines that shoot poison darts. Children excited by the prospect of such perils would be well advised to get out the Candyland and forget about this.

Actually, there’s plenty of competition for that honor, thanks to visual tricks that are allowed to overwhelm the movie. They are linked to verse spouted by the board game, which is the only rhyme or reason to be found here. (Sample couplet, about killer vines, with a debt to “Little Shop of Horrors”: “They grow much faster than bamboo/Take care or they’ll come after you.”) The director, Joe Johnston (“Honey, I Shrunk the Kids,” “The Rocketeer”), has a background as a visual-effects art director, and saves his greatest enthusiasm for unleashing mayhem. One of the film’s biggest, least appetizing sequences involves the frenetic wrecking of a discount store.

“Jumanji” is based on Chris Van Allsburg’s illustrated book about children who summon jungle animals while playing a board game. This book, handsomely illustrated but shadowy and sinister, has only the most slender of stories, so the film essentially starts from scratch. It invents Alan Parrish (Adam Hann-Byrd of “Little Man Tate”), who begins playing Jumanji in 1969 in a New Hampshire town. A bad roll of the dice sends bats fluttering out of Alan’s fireplace and lands him in limbo. By the time he returns as Mr. Williams, the town has changed drastically for the worse and Alan’s parents have died.

The book’s two characters, Judy (Kirsten Dunst) and Peter (Bradley Pierce), have been turned into orphans living in Alan’s former home. Together, they resume the Jumanji game in hopes of freeing Alan and paving the way for an “It’s a Wonderful Life”-style dramatic twist, which arrives too late in the story to warm enough hearts. The more relevant movie references are to “The Wizard of Oz,” as Judy has Dorothy’s pigtails and some of this film’s ghastlier creatures resemble Oz’s winged monkeys. If that’s not unpleasant enough, Peter also grows a monkey’s snout and tail during one of the film’s more bizarre episodes.

It doesn’t help that all the special effects in “Jumanji” look comparably uninviting, from the floorboards that trap Mr. Williams’s face to the fake-looking wildlife stampeding through the town. Eschewing warm, cuddly imagery just as Mr. Van Allsburg’s book does, the film affects a strange, artificial style that has the invasive weirdness of “Gremlins” but none of the charm.

What’s most alarming about “Jumanji” is its certainty that audiences will settle for a mixture of random gimmicks and easy sentimentality. With those assets in place and perhaps a tie-in board game to market, the film abandons all other prospects of coherence. At least Mr. Williams provides a reassuring presence, with solid help from Bonnie Hunt and David Alan Grier in the supporting cast. Ms. Dunst, as Judy, once again proves herself a spirited and cunning young actress who can survive floods, bugs and other perfectly meaningless perils with ease.



3 thoughts on “On Jumanji

  1. Yes! This film is SO underrated. I still watch it all the time with my little sister. She really likes Honey I Shrunk The Kids too. I didn’t know it was the same director. Who’s your favorite character?

  2. Pingback: On Mrs. Doubtfire | The Progressive Democrat

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