Judge Patrick Rogers' life is deprived of mischievous CGI monkeys.
"I've seen things you've only seen in your nightmares. Things you can't even imagine. Things you can't even see. There are things that hunt you in the night. Then something screams. Then you hear them eating, and you hope to God that you're not dessert."
It's hard for me not to get a little sentimental any time I see Jumanji. Having been filmed (in part) in my hometown, I always squeal like a little girl when I see a massive stampede of CGI animals stomping a path of destruction through my downtown. There's even a Parish shoe sign proudly displayed on a brick wall to this day, and Frank the barber will gladly tell you about how he was a glorified extra before he tries to peddle you one of his never ending supplies of Jumanji bobble pens. So is the fact that I enjoy this film because of my tenuous connection with its production or is it because the film is simply a well-paced and original kid's movie that can also be enjoyed by adults?
It's probably somewhere in the middle.
Facts of the Case
Alan Parrish is a dweeb who is constantly getting harassed by the boys at his school and chastised by his father for not standing up. It all changes one day though when he uncovers a board game called 'Jumanji' and decides to play it with the girl down the street, regardless of the fact that everything about the game seems evil. With a single roll of the dice, Alan is sucked into the board game to lay in wait until the dice reads five or eight. Unfortunately, his paramour runs screaming from the house before she can pick up the dice again. It's not until 26 years later, when Judy (Kirsten Dunst, Marie Antoinette) and Peter (Bradley Pierce, Chaplin) move into the Parrish's old house that Alan (Robin Williams, The Fisher King) is released from his nightmarish purgatory and the game can pick up where it was left off. It soon becomes a race to finish the game before their quiet New Hampshire town is consumed by the horrific machinations of the game itself.
When you get right down to it, Jumanji is a surprisingly dark and mature film, considering dancing CGI monkeys play such a big role in the narrative. There are themes concerning the death of parents and how it can erode childhood innocence; how regret, fear, and being alone can be psychologically crippling and how hating your father can unknowingly make you become him. But it's also a film centered around a magical board game that brings every last childhood fear imaginable into a tangible existence. The film is at its best when it is balancing these very adult themes with the much more whimsical and childish side. Director Joe Johnston made a name for himself with that balance in films like The Pagemaster and Honey, I Shrunk The Kids. Besides these dark psychological tones there's also more than a fistful of slapstick humor and sight gags. The film's ability to slip in and out of these two vastly divergent tones rests heavily on Robin Williams' shoulders. He's an actor who has consistently played against the image he's created for himself as a comedian by taking more serious or darker roles.
His role as Alan Parrish is far from his most comedic and even further from his most dramatic, but it finds a pitch perfect balance between the two extremes. It's an incredibly meaty role considering that Williams has to play a character who's been trapped in a nightmarish jungle for the last 26 years and brought back into an almost alien future world. Much of the comedy is derived from Williams trying to adjust to a technically advanced culture and also on the fact that he is basically a child stuck in a man's body. Much of the emotional gravitas rests with Williams too; especially with him trying to come to grips with the fact that his parents are dead and that the last memory he has is of disappointing them. This theme is made into a darker subtext by the fact that the image of his father has manifested itself into the character of Van Pelt, a psychotic big game hunter that torments Alan at every turn. I wonder what a cocaine addled Freud would have to say about that.
The performances are similarly impressive across the board, be it from Bonnie Hunt as Alan's psychologically crippled love interest, or Kirsten Dunst and Bradley Pierce as two kids forced to grow up much too fast after their parents' deaths. These are not your average kid movie characters, be it Judy who's a pathological liar or Peter who has retreated back into his own psyche as a form of copping. It's always a slippery slope when you deal with child actors but luckily these two are nearly flawless in their performances, and it doesn't hurt that their characters have some narrative meat behind them.
Jumanji is a film that relies heavily on CGI effects to pull off such a fantastical concept as a board game that spews out nightmarish jungle creatures along with a catchy little riddle. And maybe back in the day, way back in 1995, these effects were convincing but they're not so much anymore, especially with a high definition format like Blu-ray. There are more than a few instances where the datedness distracts from the overall narrative, but it's not enough to ruin the entire movie. It doesn't help that Joe Johnston has never been a great director. He's kind of the epitome of workman-like and he doesn't know how to shoot around the effects in order to hide their shortcomings. He instead chooses to place them front and center within his frame. It's a shame considering that Jurassic Park, a film that came out two years earlier, still has incredibly convincing effects because of Spielberg's use of life-like animatronics and CGI, with a master's knowledge of where to place his camera in order to best sell the illusion. And it pains me to acknowledge Spielberg's genius considering my hatred for him post-80s. It's a shame that this film has become so dated, but it only slightly takes away from the overall vision.
At the end of the day, Jumanji is an incredibly fun and original film that captures the whimsy of childhood innocence while tempering it against the realities of growing up. It's not a masterpiece but it's damn enjoyable. The ending is still as cheesy and sentimental as ever though.
The Blu-ray is also as erratic as the effects work in the film. The MPEG-4 AVC 1080p transfer is incredibly shaky in more than a handful of parts. At times the picture will astound you with its clarity, while at other times it looks even softer and muddled than the old DVD transfer; this is especially true come the CGI work. On the whole though, this is the best the film has ever looked. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master track is much more rewarding though. The flurry of Jumanji's soundscape is captured with great fidelity, from the mischievous howl of monkeys to the shattering clatter of a deadly stampede; this track will rock your whole house. I had to look around to make sure that there really wasn't a live lion in my living room when it let out its bloodcurdling roar. That isn't just me being painfully cheesy, I really did look around the room.
The special features are pretty straight forward but not necessarily lacking. The best is that this package comes with a DVD copy of the film. There's also a patched together commentary by many people who worked on the special effects for the film. It's very interesting to hear so many people talk about the revolutionary things they did with the picture and the hardships they had to endure to get from concept to screen. You also get your standard making-of featurette, titled "Making Jumanji: The Realm of Imagination" that runs 20 minutes; along with "Production Design: Bringing Down The House," a short little featurette that focuses on the destruction of the Parrish house through the course of the film. There's also a 15 minute featurette called "Lions and Monkeys and Pods…Oh My!" which further focuses on the CGI aspects of the film and a four minute long segment on storyboard comparisons. Rounding the disc out is a Blu-ray exclusive special feature called "Jungle Adventure: Virtual Board Game," a boring interactive game that asks you to answer trivia based on the film.
Jumanji is a great film that doesn't suffer the same kind of pitfalls so many of the same broad genre fall into. It's a kid's movie with a dramatic side and the characters are flawed and selfish. But it's a film that has a heart and an ultimate point about the realities of growing up. While the CGI may look worse than ever and the ending is still painfully corny, Jumanji is as enjoyable as ever with this Blu-ray release.
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