Lions...and no tigers...and definitely no bears. Oh, my. Judge Bill Gibron may have finally figured out why this 1995 special-effects romp no longer holds the mesmerizing magic it once did.
An adventure for those who seek to find a way to leave their world behind.
When the recently orphaned Peter (Bradley Pierce, The Borrowers) and Judy (Kirsten Dunst, Spider-Man) move into a huge mansion with their Aunt (Bebe Neuwirth, Cheers), they soon learn why she got it so cheap. Rumor has it that a boy named Alan Parrish died in the house, murdered by his father and chopped up into little pieces. One day, while waiting for the school bus, the kids hear a strange noise coming from the attic. Turns out it's a board game called Jumanji making the sound, and the kids decide to play it.
Several strange things happen all at once. The game pieces magically take their place on the board. Two other pieces are present and will not move. As they roll the dice, a window in the middle of the game delivers decidedly sinister messages. Suddenly, a horde of giant mosquitoes appears, then mischievous monkeys, then a deadly lion. On the next roll, the kids are confronted by a middle-aged man in jungle gear. It turns out to be Alan (Robin Williams, Good Will Hunting), all grown up and finally freed of the game. Seems he sat down to play it with friend Sarah (Bonnie Hunt, Jerry Maguire) nearly 30 years ago and ended up getting trapped inside the toy's precarious parallel wilderness Hell.
Now, the three of them must locate Sarah and finish the game, no matter the consequences, if they are to rid this world of the devastating effects of wildlife gone wacky. But they must confront all sorts of dangers, including a rabid hunter and a stampede of great beasts if they are to win the game and conquer Jumanji.
When viewed in light of today's modern CGI mechanics, Jumanji is visually weak and incredibly dated. The monkeys look like midgets in matted fur, while the digital lion is so stylized that you half expect it to spout free-verse poetry instead of growls. The movie is so loaded with decidedly dark elements—man-eating plants, kids in peril, hunters treating humans as prey, Robin Williams—that one can easily envision a Spielbergesque revamp with walkie-talkies in place of elephant guns and magic pixies picking up where oversized spiders once threatened. The result would be a movie with just as much narrative heft as the overblown board game gone bonkers we get here, and perhaps it wouldn't feel so weirdly out of time in the process.
The idea of turning Chris Van Allsburg's picture book into a full-blown kidvid spectacle, complete with complicated plot permutations and overriding special effects sequences must have seemed like a plausible, if Herculean, task at the time. With Jurassic Park eating up box-office receipts like ancillary African-American movie characters, anything that could be jerry-rigged with some more of that new-magic CGI specialness was bound to be a greenlit hit. Since Allsburg's image-heavy tome helped define the idea of the possible story—a game where the jungle dangers come to real, perilous life—all that was needed was a reason for the toy to be discovered and a group of characters ready to take up their tokens and play it.
Unfortunately, the end result is not quite that simple. We don't get people in Jumanji, we get full-blown people pawns. The backstory with the bullies and all the familial balderdash doesn't add a great deal of gravitas to the goings-on. The whole It's a Wonderful Life undercurrent, with the possibility of patching up the past by making amends in the present is kind of corny, and the logic in the narrative lies somewhere in between fairy and tall tale. As a result, we get a diversion as dumping ground for new technology tenets, a place to try out hair-rendering software and vector graphic variables. It's pleasant enough for a while, but never really adds up to anything substantive. If effects whiz-turned-director Joe Johnston (Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, The Rocketeer) was hoping the animated animals would help him over the film's dodgier dynamics, the bit-rate rhinos were indeed the only thing this otherwise witless film had going for it.
The basic problem with the premise to Jumanji is that it's tied to a roll of the dice. Indeed, the characters quickly learn that every time they throw them bones, they are bound for some manner of titanic trouble. So you'd think they'd learn from that and find a way to quickly play the game and get it over with—especially after menacing flora and fauna torments them, oversized stampedes chase them, and real rampaging indoor floods nearly drown them. Yet our quartet of competitors (including two adults who really should know better) simply sit back and let the danger confound and confuse them. In an obvious bow to the wee ones in the audience, it is the children who constantly come to the rescue, with a middle-aged Alan only thwarting a couple of the movie's more concerning threats. So while the storyline is linear, driving the plot toward the inevitable end (the final move of the game), the interior aspects of the storyline are very choppy and vignette-like.
Such a scattered approach makes Jumanji like a bad roller-coaster ride. We keep waiting for the next wave of fear and the characters to be faced with another made-up menace, then once it arrives, pray for their escape and wonder how they'll achieve said aim. There is no consistency to the tone, no attempt to make the individuals truly three-dimensional. William's Alan has daddy issues, yet they never really become a major factor in the movie. Sarah poses as a psychic, but that little bit of character conceit is almost immediately tossed aside, left to a single stupid joke and then relegated to the biography back burner. You would never know that Peter and Judy just lost their parents, since they go from grief to gamers in such a short span of time that the entire lost family facet of the story is simply forgotten. Even the puppy-dog romance that was budding between the younger versions of Hunt's and Williams's characters now seems like a stunt, a obvious bow toward a "we are eventually family" type of ending.
If made today, the film would certainly have better effects—or be called Zathura, for that matter. It would ditch the constant roll-and-wait ideal for something a little more fluid, and the fatherhood storyline would be ditched for an issue more relevant to today's kids (like, say, getting your Blackberry privileges revoked—ouch!). Ten years apparently takes a lot out of a movie, and while Park still plays well, Jumanji seems more jumbled and disjointed than before. It is still a pleasant way to pass the time, just not a very artistically or substantively satisfying one.
Since there is that new Allsburg title hitting the Multiplex, Sony has decided to re-release Jumanji in a special, cardboard game board deluxe edition. Spreading out an interesting if derivative set of extras over two discs (many made at the time of the movie's production) and adding the usual anamorphic widescreen image and Dolby Digital Stereo, the result is a surprisingly lame presentation. The first flummoxing issue is the transfer. Jumanji looks faded, soft, and incredibly murky in this rather poor 1.85:1 version. The 16x9 features are fine, but the CGI looks incredibly fake under these less-than -ideal (and definitely not remastered) circumstances. The sonic situation isn't much better. The 5.1 is not very spatially ambient, and the only time the channels get any kind of attention is when the animals make their left-to-right rampages. Considering how beloved this otherwise average title is, you'd think Sony would spend a few quid and fix up the picture. Instead, they let the decade-old Allsburg fend for itself, in lieu of the fresh new film on the horizon.
As for the added content, it is a decidedly mixed bag. The commentary consists of the effects crew discussing the ins and outs of 1s and 0s and it doesn't take long before they de-evolve into geeky techno-speak. They know little of the other production aspects of the film, so this one-sided discussion grows dull very quickly. The rest of Disc One relies on games for the kiddies (including a trivia-based riddle contest), a look at all the animals in the film in something called "The Extreme Book of Nature," and a confusing collection of magic tricks (HUH???) under the title "Ancient Diversions." Disc Two offers up a making-of documentary (inflated EPK #1), a production design featurette (glorified EPK #2) a special effects behind the scenes (EPK #3), and a collection of storyboards, conceptual art, and production stills. There is also a free ticket to see Zathura inside the case.
Since generations of juniors will be jonesing for this film, there is really nothing negative this critic can say to dissuade you from potential ownership. Just take this Buyer Beware with you as you head down to the brick-and-mortar merchandise mart. If 10 years has tainted some of Jumanji's magic, imagine what another decade brings. This is not a film meant to hold up over the long haul. It was definitely of its time—and perhaps that's where it should have stayed.
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice
• Special Effects Crew Commentary
Review content copyright © 2005 Bill Gibron; Site design and review layout copyright © 2013 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.