Wednesday, March 17, 2010
You know how we sometimes say we'll look back on a dark time in our life and laugh in retrospect? Well, such was the case with the 1995 film version of Jumanji. How were we to know that a dozen odd years later, the CGI animals that had so terrified us and had induced endless nightmares would seem like cuddly Disney animations in comparison to today's true-to-life graphics?
Facetiousness aside, the effects in the film absolutely deserve their due. At the time, Jumanji utilized some of the most advanced CGI technology available. Sure, the visual effects cower in the shadow of more recent digital imagery trailblazers like Avatar, but in the mid-90s that level of realism was almost unfathomable. In the three years between Jurassic Park and Jumanji, I probably slept a total of 12 hours. Heck, even Men in Black gave me nightmares, so just imagine the damage that could be done with a computer-animated stampede of rhinocerouses charging across my screen. Had 3-D technology been available for this movie, I'd have been a goner.
Jumanji originated as a 1981 children's book by Chris Van Allsburg, serving as a sort of cautionary for what can happen when magic-tinged board games go very, very wrong. The 1995 film version adhered largely to the same story, though it did introduce some colorful new grown-up characters like Robin William's wacky woodsman Alan Parrish. The movie tries its best to give us a legitimate backstory for a fantasy tale as it weaves a yarn filled with arbitrary details like a shoe factory, a bully, and a bicycle. If you're not scratching your head yet at this movie-built premise, don't worry: you will be.
To his credit, Robin Williams makes a great man-child. It's what he did best in the 90s, so he was a pretty natural casting choice for the role of Alan Parrish. The movie begins in the 19th century as we watch a pair of fear-stricken young boys bury an ominous looking chest deep in the woods. When one asks the other what happens if someone digs it up, his pal replies darkly, "May God have mercy on his soul." How's that for a bright and cheery beginning?
Fast forward to the late 60s, where middle schooler Alan Parrish faces daily lashings at the hand of a school bully. Alan meddles a bit in production at his father's shoe factory and causes some shake-up. To make matters worse, he gets beat up outside the factory and his bike is stolen by the aforementioned bullies. Just when he thinks his day couldn't sink any further into the annals of adolescent desperation, Alan stumbles upon a dusty drum beat-emitting game box at a construction site.
Alan's father is displeased with him and wants to send him to boarding school, so in typical rational well-thought out childlike fashion, Alan decides to run away. Not, though, before laying into the mysterious game he unearthed earlier that day. Alan's classmate Sarah comes over with his stolen bicycle and the two embark on a game of Jumanji. It's totally creepy, but the kids are getting really into it. When it's Alan's turn, a frightening message appears on the game board: "In the jungle you must wait, until the dice read five or eight." He's then unceremoniously sucked into the veritable vacuum of the Jumanji world, presumably never to be seen again.
Until, that is, a new family moves into the house a quarter century later. Peter and Judy (Kirsten Dunst) are recent orphans on the move with their new guardian, Aunt Nora, but even newcomers like them can sense this house is incredibly sketchy and potentially haunted. Those damned drumbeats start again, reissuing their generation-spanning intoxicating pull over children. Judy and Peter come across the Jumanji board in the attic, and although it's pretty clear to the rest of us that this is the worst idea in the world, they immediately begin playing. I'm not sure why ominous drum beats never seemed like a warning sign to anyone in this movie, only an invitation. Go figure.
As you might expect, things quickly take a turn for the frightening and fantastical. Giant insects and roaming animals take up shop in their home, but the board swears to them it'll all be cool if they just keep playing. Right. Peter rolls a five and Alan's late-60s prophecy is broken, releasing the jungle man back into the civilized confines of his former dwelling. Oh, and there's also a lion. Did I not mention the lion? Because it is terrifying. Even now, it still scares me a little. That thing is growly.
Alan cleans up a bit and does some investigating into his old life, finding that his father searched relentlessly for him throughout the remainder of his life. Now that Peter and Judy have released havoc on their sleepy New Hampshire town, they can't seem to keep the game moving; the board seemingly issues a cease and desist on their gameplay, leaving us to fear this lion-infested world is the new permanent norm. Alan realizes that they've been playing a continuation of the game he played with his friend Sarah, so they go off to seek her out. How exactly a man who was sequestered to the jungle at 12 had such powerful deductive reasoning skills is beyond my grasp, but in a world where gameboards release swarms of killer mosquitoes it seems that anything can happen.
The gang head's over to Sarah's and discover she's become a shut-in, forever reliving the trauma of her Jumanji experience. I'm sure the one thing this Jumanji-traumatized lady wants to do is pick up playing right where she left off and cut her nearly-healed psychological wounds right back open again. Sarah (Bonnie Hunt) is not having it, so they are forced to trick her into playing her turn.
Alan reaches out to Carl, the man his father fired from his factory for Alan's mistake. Carl (David Alan Grier) is now a policeman and is thus pulled in to all of this havoc-wreaking chaos on the town. Here's where things get all sorts of terrifying. We get a full big game jungle stampede, people-snatching giant vines, a long-trapped hunter, and a batty pelican that interferes with their quest to finish the game once and for all. Peter tries to cheat and turns into a monkey, which is a pretty harsh means of teaching kids to practice good sportsmanship. Giant flowers eat police cars, the kids battle the hunter, and things continue to spiral downward at a rapid code red pace.
Our man Alan finally takes the game and cries out with the requisite "Jumanji!" All of the craziness gets sucked back into the game board. After all that scariness, this movie partakes in the ultimate reset button function and sets us all back at zero. Sarah and Alan get to return to 1969 and set everything right. Alan tells his father what he did to Carl, and Mr. Parrish rehires him. Plus, Alan doesn't have to go to boarding school and the Jumanji board is forever buried in the water. Hooray!
Time scoots forward yet again and Alan and Sarah are happily married. As if all of that wrong-righting hadn't been enough, these do-gooders convince Peter and Judy's now still-living parents (did you follow that?) not to take what Alan knew to be their ill-fated skiing trip. I just knew there had to be some impact on that darned space-time continuum.
As we come to end, we find that Jumanji has not, as presumed, been laid to rest. We get our scary drum beats again, and some French girls walking along the beach are mere feet away from the game washed up upon their shore. Just when you thought it was safe, they pull the rug from under you, leaving us to speculate the future terrors that lie ahead in a world where computer animation has grown not only more advanced but progressively more realistically frightening. Yikes.