An adventure for those who seek to find a way to leave their world behind.
Jumanji is the name of a mysterious and malevolent board game that draws innocent children into a real game of life and death. The story is based on a children's book written by Chris Van Allsburg, in which a young boy named Alan Parrish is struggling with not fitting in with other kids because of his name; which happens to be the name of the wealthiest man in town and largest employer. Other kids resent and bully him. His father seems too busy to deal with him effectively, and tells Alan to stand up to whatever scares him; not realizing he is asking his son to stand up to several attackers at once. Alan feels alone, except for his only friend, Sarah Whittle.
The game itself has been given a preface that gives away its danger, and you hear jungle drums emanating from it. Apparently only children can hear them, and it draws them in. A hundred years ago kids had buried it, hoping it would never be found again. But Alan finds it unearthed at a construction site near his father's shoe factory. He takes it home, and invites young Sarah to play it with him. She thinks the game sounds boring, but their interest is piqued by the pieces moving themselves. But when Alan rolls his first turn, to see the words appear "In the jungle you must wait, until the dice read five or eight," he is transformed into a vortex that is swallowed up within the game. The result of Sarah's roll becomes known when the room is suddenly filled with bats, and she runs screaming.
Twenty-six years later, two children have moved into the long-abandoned home with their aunt who is outside her element trying to care for her dead brother's kids. They hear the drums coming from the attic, and decide to play the game too. When young Peter (Bradley Pierce, The Borrowers) rolls a five, he gets more than he bargained for; first a very large lion, and a scruffy full grown Alan, played with his usual wit by Robin Williams (Good Will Hunting, Patch Adams, Mrs. Doubtfire).
Poor Alan has spent all those years trapped in the all-too-real jungle of Jumanji, and has grown up alone. He is overjoyed to be home, only to be dumbfounded and disappointed in what has happened while he was away. By now though, they find that already wild marauding monkeys and disease carrying mosquitoes have been loosed, and the game must be finished before it can all go away. But to finish the game, they also need Sarah, who has grown up ostracized and thought of as crazy for daring to tell the truth about what she saw happen to Alan. The grown up Sarah is played with élan by Bonnie Hunt (Jerry Maguire, The Green Mile), and wants nothing to do with the game, having spent her whole life in therapy trying to convince herself the game never existed at all. Finally the children and the adults do play though, with each turn causing ever-greater catastrophes, including stampedes, monsoons, earthquakes, quicksand, and a big-game hunter hunting Alan. The story then basically devolves into trying to finish the game amidst huge obstacles, so that all may be put right.
This is a re-release of the disc in a stupendous special edition by Columbia TriStar. A sparkling anamorphic transfer and plenty of extras makes this the definitive version of the film to buy.
There are a lot of good things to say about the film. It is fast paced, clever, and a rousing adventure story. The performances are all first rate, including the young Kirsten Dunst (Dick, Wag the Dog, Interview with the Vampire) as the other youngster playing the game, and the supporting cast of Bebe Neuwirth (Summer of Sam, The Faculty, TV's Cheers) as the aunt and David Alan Grier (McHale's Navy, Blankman, Loose Cannons), young Alan's friend who has become a cop in the new, depressing world that the boy's absence created. Of course I have to complement Robin Williams' performance. Williams is an engaging artist who appeals to children for the sheer silliness of many of his performances, but he also appeals to adults for the intelligence and humanity one finds behind his playful childlike quality.
Then of course there are the top-notch special effects. That's right, I said top-notch. Several reviews have not been kind to the film's effects, particularly the creatures summoned by the game. But if you take a look at the people involved in the project, and the amount of time they spent, it speaks volumes. The director Joe Johnston cut his teeth in the business doing the special effects of the first three Star Wars films and Raiders of the Lost Ark. He was also a designer on The Iron Giant. He went on to direct Honey I Shrunk the Kids, The Rocketeer, October Sky, and is currently directing Jurassic Park 3. The other people involved in the special effects included a group of people who have worked on virtually every special effects film from Jurassic Park to The Phantom Menace. These folks spent a year on the effects, longer than most films ever get for the whole process. It is well known (and if you didn't know listen to the SFX team's commentary track) that the creatures were meant to look like they do. Instead of trying to make animals that looked exactly like the real thing they went for copying the creatures from the children's book. These creatures look like something from a child's imagination rather than reality. You can question whether that was the wisest choice, and I do myself, but they got what they wanted. I particularly liked the rhino and elephant stampede, which did look pretty realistic. Then for more practical effects they did a very convincing flood scene and totally destroyed the house set with vines overgrowing and an earthquake breaking it in half.
Critics also said the film didn't have a story. While they have something of a point, there is actually a story there. The main story has to do with Alan learning to face what he is afraid of, as his father taught. He learned that both from years in the jungle and playing the game again after it had ruined his life. But there is also a very nice It's a Wonderful Life quality to the story as it explores the repercussions of the absence of one person. When Alan disappears, it has far ranging effects, ruining the lives of his parents and ultimately turning the bucolic small town into its own version of Pottersville.
Forget the movie for a moment, this disc is also first rate. The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is superb. Color saturation is wonderful, full without blooming or bleeding, edges detailed without artifact, and in fact there are no detectable digital flaws at all. Flesh tones remain accurate throughout the film, and even the film stock shows no grain or other defect.
The audio stands up to the stiff competition offered by the video as it's finest aspect. The Dolby Digital 5.1 track aggressively works from around the room, with clearly defined directional effects and great bass extension. Dialogue always remains centered and audible even over the sometimes-loud special effects. The stampede scenes will knock the knickknacks off the wall if you aren't careful.
The James Horner musical score has some pretty good rumble as well, with tribal drums figuring heavily into the mix and a brass section that shines. Listen to the separate musical score audio track if you don't believe me. Which is just one of the many extras offered on this disc. First there is the Special Effects Crew commentary track, which runs feature length. There are quite a few people on the track but they take turns nicely. One of them, Ken Ralston, is also directing Jumanji 2, and gives a few hints about the upcoming sequel. I was surprised to find out there were probably more crew supervisors involved in the film than most action movies get for their entire crew. But as each effect presented itself the relevant people spoke up, and the rest was filled with both technical and anecdotal information. There is a 20-minute "Making of" documentary, a 15 minute featurette on the creatures and how they were made, and a short feature on how the house was broken in half for the earthquake scene. Extensive storyboard sketches and photo galleries, Talent files, a trailer and teaser for Jumanji, and trailers for Madeline and Matilda round out the extra content. I've been lax in mentioning menus lately but these are among the best animated menus I've yet seen on a DVD. There is also a two-page leaflet of production notes inside the case.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The film has a few flaws, at least in my opinion. It is rated PG and that rating should be taken seriously with regard to small children, who I think would be frightened by the film. Adults need to let their inner child come forth a bit to enjoy it as well. The story is a bit lacking as well; most of it is in fact setups for the next special effects scene. But that isn't enough to make it bad, and the story elements that are there are touching, caring, and human.
In my opinion some of the stylized animals should have been made a bit more realistic, particularly the monkeys. I maintain they look exactly as they intended but I still think a different artistic choice would have improved the film.
I'm really reaching to find something wrong with the disc itself. Having another commentary track by director Joe Johnston and the stars, including Robin Williams would have been great. And the isolated musical score track does have some gaps since it only plays through the movie; when there is no score in the film it's silent.
I thoroughly enjoyed the film in this fine state and the disc as a whole. Unless you simply hated the film, or you're worried about very small children being frightened, this is a must have disc. Kudos to Columbia for doing a major re-release of its former bare-bones disc done in the early days of the format. This is an example to some other studios out there; take heed or Columbia will grab your market share.
I can't charge anyone with anything here. Except for the pleasure of watching this disc it has been a total waste of my time and jurisprudence. Case dismissed.
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