“Til the dice read five or eight”
If asked who my favorite illustrator was growing up, I’d always reply Chris Van Allsburg. My elementary school years in Florida saw our librarian reading us many of his lusciously detailed books and I fell in love with the paintings as well as the stories. So when I saw that Jumanji had been made into a film, I was very excited. I think I really had fun watching it back in 1995 and revisiting it today kept a lot of that childish enjoyment intact even if the special effects haven’t aged well. Going through the first little bit—a prologue if you will—I was completely in the dark, not remembering any of those moments. It is a nice set-up with two young kids circa 1880 burying the game in hopes to rid the world of it only to have it be found again by Alan Parrish in 1969. It of course transports him into a jungle world for 26 years until two new children stumble upon its drumming.
Special effects are a very interesting thing. Groundbreaking, never been better graphics rarely hold up with time. I recall films from my childhood that were so vividly magical and yet I can hardly understand what I could have been thinking upon revisiting them. Whether stop-motion animation, green-screen work, or animatronic creatures feeling plastic—if it’s fake it will look fake when you become accustomed to newer technology. This is true with Jumanji, but being a children’s fantasy it doesn’t hurt the replay value. The backgrounds start to look flat and thus help you predict when an effect is coming because you know there’s a green-screen behind the actor. And interactions between computer elements become forced as the humans don’t quite match when touching objects not really there. But it does still generally work for the plot. The lion is quite effective and the monsoon flood and quick-growing vines portray some realism. Honestly the only things that may be unforgivably off are the monkeys (very cartoon-like), the stampeding animals (definitely not in the same color scheme as the environment they’re running through), the jelly-like plastic spiders, and the quicksand floors. Otherwise, you kind of give it the benefit of the doubt because the story engrosses you enough to hide the inadequacies of the effects.
The film is an inventive tale centering upon a game that affects the real world. You role the dice and bring creatures from Jumanji into your own living room. It’s a dark magic that rears its ugly head first by entrapping a young boy until the next player rolls a five or eight. His disappearance so frightens his friend, however, that she ran off and sought psychiatric help over the next three decades to prove it never happened. As a result, young Alan Parrish grows up in a jungle world of violence and fantasy only to be brought back as a grown man when the new inhabitants of his now-deceased parent’s house roll the dice themselves. Judy and Peter start to understand what is happening and—unlike Alan and Sarah—read the second half of the instructions which state that only when the game is won and the word Jumanji spoken can the fantastical elements now in their world go away. While it might not be “real”, it is all very much alive and solid until the game takes it back again at the end.
The cast fills the tale very nicely with many familiar faces and effective turns. Alan, the boy trapped and returned, is played as an adult by the always fun Robin Williams. It’s a somewhat more subdued role for him, yet the knowledge of all these creatures and having lived in Jumanji allows for a little of his manic mannerisms to show up. But I think his relationship with the adult Sarah, played by Bonnie Hunt, works best. The two of them are very much still children—one who had been trapped in a fictional world and the other her own head. Only now so many years later do they finally have a chance to grow. (And with a very intriguing and somewhat surprising ending, they get to do so in more ways than you may think.)
There are also some nice supporting roles including Bebe Neuwirth as Judy and Peter’s guardian; Jonathan Hyde as Alan’s father and fictional villain Van Pelt, who is very much an embodiment of that father; and David Alan Grier as “Soleman” Carl Bentley. Grier is a lot of fun playing someone from Alan’s past that becomes a policeman, this new job putting him right in the mix of things at present. The two roles that really make the film work, however, are new game players Judy and Peter played by Kirsten Dunst and Bradley Pierce respectively. Both are great as youngsters battling their own fears about what is happening while also trying to be the “adult” figures for Alan and Sarah—keeping them on task to finish the game they started and hopefully bring their world back to normal.