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Jumanji

posted by Mickey on 9/10/03

I saw the shorts advertising “Jumanji” when it came out in 1995 or thereabouts. I thought it looked like a movie that boasted state-of-the-art special effects, but since it looked unlikely to offer much in the way of entertainment beyond the SFX, I decided to give it a miss.

Well, a little while ago, I finally got around to catching it on video and the special effects that had seemed so impressive in the shorts I had seen in 1995 now look about as convincing as the special effects in the Fay Wray/Bruce Cabot version of “King Kong.” But “Jumanji” is a fantastic film. It is beautifully written, full of great characters, it features a string of likeable performances and my only quibble with Joe Johnston's direction is the lame-ass CGI stuff.

“Jumanji” is a board game that doesn't only involve tokens moving along a board in accordance with the rules of the game; what also happens is that the course of Nature changes, so that a given roll of the pair of dice with which the game is played can produce, for example, stampedes of wild animals, or an earthquake, or players turning into wild beasts. If something wildly improbable happens, like the Californian elections, then this could mean that someone somewhere is playing “Jumanji.”

At the beginning of the movie, there is this little prologue where we see some kids from the immediate post-Civil-War era, who have just finished up a game, and are burying it so that it will never be played again. They were probably too busy pondering the rights and wrongs of Presidential Reconstruction, and just generally being old-fashioned, to realise that stuff that has been buried can be dug up again, and that carefully wrapping it up is more likely to preserve it than to hasten its destruction by the elements. Myself, I would have burned it, or given it to an opportunity shop, but that is just me.

Anyway, in 1969 it does get dug up, and this boy Alan (Adam Hann-Byrd) and his friend Sarah (Laura Bundy) begin to play it. Just one move into the game, Alan has an unlucky roll of the dice, and finds himself sucked by centripetal force into a jungle that is pictured in the graphic in the middle of the gameboard, where he must remain until someone playing the game should roll a 5 or an 8. At this point Sarah, a little upset by this turn of events, runs away; and the boy is presumed to have been murdered by his parents; and the game is not played until 26 years later, when two new kids, Peter (Bradley Pierce) and Judy (Kirsten Dunst) stumble upon it.


Just to make it more interesting, what say we raise the stakes and make it that only the winner can go on to have a successful career when they're an adult?

I kind of suspect that at some level the filmmakers wanted to suggest that the late 1960s were a cataclysmic time for America, and that the events of that time were still unfolding and impacting on the lives of young people at the time the film was made. If so, that would be partly narcissistic Babyboomer self-importance, and partly simple Woodstock II common sense. What I couldn't help thinking though, as I watched these events unfold, is what a whining little bitch Sarah was for not having at least another throw of the dice to try to rescue Alan.

On my quick calculations, of the 36 combinations that rolling two dice can produce, no less than nine total either 5 or 8; meaning that there was a one in four chance of getting that poor forsaken boy out of the jungle on the very next roll. But that is not all. According to the rules of the game, if you roll doubles, you get another turn. Apart from rolling two 4s, which would have been sufficient in itself to rescue Alan, there are 5 other doubles combinations from the remaining 35 possible dice throws, or a 1 in 7 chance of getting to roll again. Those aren't terrible odds. If she had taken her turn, and had not produced a 5 or an 8 then, presumably, it would have been Alan's turn to roll, and since he was trapped in the jungle he wouldn't have been able to take it; and then, in those circumstances, I believe it would have been excusable for her not to carry on with the game. As it is, I don't think it is unfair to say she flakes out.

Anyway, when the 1995 kids do succeed in bringing him back from the jungle, as 26 years have passed, Alan is now played by Robin Williams. I have got to admit that I don't really like Robin Williams. He is unquestionably one of the most naturally gifted comic actors to have worked in cinema and, by rights, he ought to have as many good movies under his belt as, say, Steve Martin. Instead, one would have to go back to Charlie Chaplin to find a comedian whose work has been so undermined by an instinct to constantly move towards an unbearably sloppy brand of sentimentality. The second worst moment in a Robin Williams movie usually occurs when his face begins its trademark dissolution towards looking all concerned and heartbroken over something, and the reason it looks so awful is that the face somehow also looks smug and very well pleased at itself for the concern that it is registering. The worst moment in a Robin Williams' movie, almost needless to say, is when he pulls off his shirt to showcase the infamous “bear-rug.” (Look, OK, this probably doesn't even happen in a majority of his movies, but when it does happen it is pretty traumatic).


No, Robin. Don't take off your shirt. For the love of God, leave the shirt on.

Thanks to his unerring ability to find movies where he can compromise his gifts by playing a lot of big sloppy bathetic scenes, and thanks to his ludicrously hairy chest, most Robin Williams movies are pretty crappy, except “Aladdin” where he was protected from his own worst instincts by being disembodied, while at the same time given an opportunity to stretch out with some great comic improvisation. In the last couple of years, he has also been really good playing psychotic murderers in films like “Insomnia” and “One Hour Photo”. It seems somehow plausible that a lot of psychopaths would be kind of maudlin and sentimental in a Robin Williams way during periods of downtime when they weren't actually engaged in murdering people, and casting RW in these kinds of roles has seemed to me to be quite astute.

Anyway, that has nothing to do with how he plays his role in “Jumanji.” He is, for Robin Williams, remarkably restrained, and turns in a good solid performance. The role he is playing is that of a rather shy, damaged little boy, who finds himself in a middle-aged man's body. If played with his customary broadness, he could have made it really horrible, so he deserves some kudos for keeping himself relatively reigned-in.

Although I was expecting to see Robin Williams, I wasn't expecting to see Kirsten Dunst (since I hadn't studied the back of the video packet before I started to watch the movie). Kirsten Dunst has always made me feel strange since she graduated from being a child actress to being a beautiful young woman. When you are familiar with her as a child, it somehow feels a bit yucky to feel attracted towards her. Young or ,well, still young, but sexy as well, she is a fine actor, and she is brilliant in “Jumanji.” However, she is probably just pipped in terms of the acting honors by Bradley Pierce, whose performance as Peter is probably the highlight of the movie.

So, it is a good film. Another thing I admired about it was the way that the same actor played both Alan's father and the hunter who is tracking him down through the second part of the movie. This is partly a nod to “Peter Pan,” where traditionally the same actor plays both the father and Captain Hook. It is also the case that when Jonathan Hyde is wearing a pointed helmet, to play the hunter, van Pelt, if you just squint a bit, he looks like a penis, and the Freudian implications of these scenes become even more obvious.

On a serious note, the subject of the movie is not just the imaginative worlds that can be conjured up in childhood, but also the terrible emotional fragility of childhood. The central lines of the movie belong to Robin Williams as Alan, when he finds himself upbraiding Peter, who has began to cry from the stress of the havoc that playing the game is causing him: “What, are you crying? You don't cry, all right? You keep your chin up. Come on, keep your chin up. Crying never helped anybody do anything, okay? You have a problem, you face it like a man.” Peter just continues to cry and in a beautifully acted little scene, Alan realizes what he has just said, and continues, “Twenty-six years buried in the deepest, darkest jungle and I still became my father.”

There is a lot more in the movie. I hope at least a few people will be inspired by my post to rent the film and discover what else is there for themselves. It is a children's movie, and would suit any kid who is 4 years or so or older, so if you need an excuse to watch it, and there is a child around, “Jumanji” offers an opportunity to keep the child quiet and catch an entertaining movie at the same time.

As well as recognising that it is a movie about childhood, and families, I mostly liked it because it is about a board game. More specifically, one of the things I especially liked about it was that it was dedicated to the notion that, when once a game has been begun, it should be finished. There are some people out there who regard board games as if they are activities that are OK for killing some time, until some counterattraction like food or television or sex becomes available, at which time the board game can be abandoned. Those people don't understand, don't properly understand, what it means to play a board game.


OMG, Beethoven!

So, my two major criticisms of “Jumanji” (apart from the aforementioned disappointing CGI) are both about the board game that the movie is named after.

First of all, it is not a very interesting game. You roll a dice. You move the tokens. Apart from the course of Nature changing in wildly unpredictable ways, nothing happens. WHAT A BORING GAME! Listen, nature would WANT to change its course, because that is the ONLY thing that keeps the game interesting.

Secondly, none of the people playing the game seem to care too much about who is going to win it. All they're concerned about is bringing the game to its conclusion so natural disasters will stop hitting Brentfield. That isn't very realistic. Don't these people have any natural, healthy, competitive edge? I mean if I was playing Jumanji, the fact that reality was disintegrating all around me wouldn't distract me from wanting to win the game. Hell, reality disintegrates EVERY time I play a board game. When I play Scrabble, for God's sake, I spend half the game trying to alter the course of the language to allow words like SUNSETMOLE or BOONPADDLE or GINCHIEVOUS to exist, and I half believe that I can make them appear in the dictionary, just by appearing so confident that they will be there that no one will call my bluff by checking them out. So, if you think I would lose interest in whether or not I was winning Jumanji, just because my opponents were all turning into monkeys or some damn thing, or just because herds of fake-looking wild beasts were running down the main street of the city I live in, you've got another thing coming.

After I saw the movie, I tried to locate the actual board game was a spin off from the movie. Thanks to excellent customer service from the lovely Barbara at the Games Shop in the almost equally beautiful Royal Arcade in Melbourne I was able to find the game.. I was pretty lucky to find it, since it seems to be a discontinued game. It is good. I was a bit disappointed when I found out that it doesn't actually cause the havoc that the version in the movie did, but you can't have everything. I will need to play it a few more times before I can come to a considered opinion about just how good a game it is, but I can reveal it does quite cleverly preserve the movie's emphasis on playing the game to its conclusion. My only real reservation with the game, from the couple of times I have played it so far, is that it has a an eight-sided die, instead of the movie's set of standard six-sided dice. I intend to experiment with replacing the die with a pair of dice, and I forsee many happy hours ahead, rattling those bones like Sky Masterson and proceeding towards the centre of the board, and the chance to cry, exultantly, “Jumanji!”

Mickey.
mickey@whatever-dude.com

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