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Jumanji (1995)


In this modern world of realistic video games and interactive everything, wouldn’t it be great to have a board game that plays you back?

No. No it wouldn’t. And here’s why.

Jumanji is a fantasy-comedy film directed by Joe Johnston, adapted from the picture book of the same name by Chris Van Allsburg. It stars Robin Williams, Kirsten Dunst, David Alan Grier, Bonnie Hunt, and Jonathan Hyde, with jungle hazards provided by Industrial Light and Magic.

It is the year 1969. Twelve-year-old Alan Parrish is having a bad day. His father barely acknowledges him except to chastise him for what he’s doing wrong, and plans to send him to boarding school. His friend Carl Bentley just accepted the blame for Alan damaging a machine at his father’s shoe factory and lost his job. He just got his butt kicked by a group of bullies. Fortunately, he just found this neat board game called Jumanji, and decides to spend an evening at home playing it with another friend, Sarah, little suspecting that his bad day is about to last 26 years. Fast forward to 1995. Judy and Peter Shepherd move into the Parrishes’ old house and find the game, still in progress. With nothing better to do, they also begin playing, never suspecting that this supernatural game is going to turn their lives upside down, summoning things like lions, man-eating plants, giant mosquitoes, and a stampede into their small town. Now they must fight to survive and finish the game, hoping that when it is done everything will be back to normal…

Jumanji was an enjoyable fantasy romp, with a solid concept (vaguely malevolent magic board game) and a likeable cast of characters led by Robin Williams, here effectively straddling the line between comedy and drama as he deals with the dangers summoned up by the board game. The dual casting of Jonathan Hyde as both Sam Parrish and the murderous hunter Van Pelt conjures up a Peter Pan-like vibe, as many theatrical adaptations of that story cast the same actor as both John Darling and Captain Hook. Here, Van Pelt respresents Alan Parrish’s fears of facing his father (both in real life and in facing how he has internalized many of his father’s harsh mannerisms), and only in facing Van Pelt can the door be opened for Alan to face his childhood fears. The book, of course, is quite different from the movie – and only 26 pages long – but it has been well-adapted to feature-length here, keeping you on the edge of your seat as you wait to see what new danger could come out of this innocent-looking game.

An occasional complaint I’ve heard is that the animals and such the games summons up are obvious CGI and look “fake”. To this I reply, well, of course they don’t look “real”. They’re not “real”. If anything, they’re summoned from a pocket dimension where lions and elephants (and pelicans!) cavort freely in the jungle alongside mosquitoes the size of hawks, spiders the size of dogs, and giant man-eating plants that will also snack on a car if it’s handy. The critters look like they “should look” through the eyes of a child more than how they actually look through the eyes of a biologist. It’s a movie about a magic board game – this is no time to be griping about realism in animals and plants summoned by fell magic. Just sit back and relax.

While some parts might be frightening to younger children, I would recommend this for family viewing. The story is engaging, the cast is solid, and the antics caused by elements of a fantasy jungle being unleashed on a small town are thrilling and entertaining. A must-see.

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