100 Film Favorites – #71: Jumanji
(Joe Johnston, 1995)
The unstoppable ball of improvisational energy that is Robin Williams returns to our Countdown in Jumanji. Freely adapted from the short picture book by Chris Van Allsburg (author of The Polar Express), the film revolves around a magical board game which releases wild animals and other assorted jungle perils with each roll of the dice. The narrative primarily focuses on one particularly lengthy play-through which unites two generations of players, who must work together to finish the game and restore the jungle-ravaged world to normal.
The film (set in a posh, very un-jungly New England neighborhood) begins with a young Alan Parrish, heir to a prosperous shoe-making company, making his way home. Alan is bullied at school and fails to earn the attention and respect of his busy father. While walking past a construction site, Alan hears the sound of ominous tribal drumming coming from the dirt. Digging frantically as the drumming intensifies, Alan unearths a heavy, finely-hewn wooden box labeled JUMANJI.
One night, Alan’s parents leave for some kind of classy gala, and Alan talks Sarah, a popular girl from his school, into playing the game with him. But when Alan’s first roll results in the mysterious orb at the game’s center spelling out “In the jungle you must wait, until the dice read five or eight,” he is vaporized and sucked into the board, causing Sarah to run screaming into the night.
A quarter-century later, the Parrish house lies vacant, and young Alan’s disappearance is the subject of urban legends. Two children, Judy and Peter, move into the house with their aunt, and discover the board game. The first few rolls of the dice release sparrow-sized mosquitoes and a troop of mischievous monkeys (rendered in glorious 1995 CGI):
Then, Peter rolls a five…releasing both a lion and a very hairy wild-man played by Robin Williams. The man is revealed to be Alan Parrish, who has “gone native” after having to survive in the jungle world of Jumanji for the last 26 years. Once Alan realizes where (and when) he has returned to, he tells the children he will need to help them finish the game to send the jungle horrors back whence they came. But in order to do this, they will need to find their fourth player. Alan, Peter and Judy track down Sarah, now in her late 30s and having spent years of therapy trying to forget the events of the night Alan disappeared, and have to convince her to join them in finishing the game.
As the game progresses, the board releases tropical hazards including quicksand, giant spiders, carnivorous vines, and even a full-fledged stampede of elephants, zebra, and rhinoceri, which plows through the Parrish mansion and on into the town beyond. Among the natural disasters and insidious flora and fauna, the group also unleash Alan’s nemesis, a stereotypical “great white hunter” named Van Pelt, who has developed a taste for hunting the most dangerous game. Similar to the Peter Pan tradition of having the same actor play both the Darling children’s father and Captain Hook, Van Pelt is portrayed by Johnathan Hyde, who also plays Alan’s judgmental father.
The effects of the game aren’t limited to the Parrish household – soon the entire neighborhood is being turned upside down by marauding monkeys, crushed by elephants in musth, beset by monsoon floods, and prowled by the mighty hunter, who has stopped in at a sporting goods store and swapped his old musket for an assault rifle. Alan, Sarah and the children barely evade the various animals (and the angry townsfolk) to continue the game. Finally, as an earthquake literally tears the house apart, Alan rolls the dice…and they fall through a crack in the floor, plummeting down into the abyssal depths of the opening rift. As Van Pelt readies a kill shot, the dice land at the bottom of the pit somewhere far below. Alan’s token reaches the center of the board, and the jungle hazards begin dissolving. Van Pelt’s bullet leaps back into his rifle, and, in a blur, all the jungle creatures are sucked back into the magical board.
Alan comes to in the restored mansion. Young again, he runs to embrace his parents. And he finally has a heart-to-heart talk with his father, who turns out not to hate him after all.
Jumanji is a pretty unique concept: A “game” which gets more and more horrible and dangerous as you continue, but which must be finished to undo its effects. Having to persist “playing” as you cause the world to fall apart around you is chilling, but at the same time, pretty awesome.
If you want any more insight into why I enjoy this film so much, remember that I was 5 when this movie came out. Jungle animals and five year old boys are a more high-energy combination than Mentos and Diet Coke. Throw in the man who played the Genie in Aladdin and you quickly approach critical levels of child-energy. I loved this movie, and still do.
-Judy is played by a young Kirsten Dunst.
–Jumanji inspired an animated TV series, in which, instead of the board releasing hazards, it sucks Judy and Peter into the jungle each turn. Alan is still in his wild-man role, and is voiced by Bill Fagerbakke (who would later voice Patrick Star in Spongebob).
-The film had a spiritual sequel, Zathura, released in 2005, also about a magical board game (this one’s space-themed) and adapted from a Van Allsburg story. The book explicitly references the Jumanji game as existing within the same universe, but the film makes no such allusions.
-Milton Bradley produced a game inspired by the film. It introduces plenty of additional jungle hazards to those shown in the movie, and the board is beautiful. Unfortunately, the pieces don’t move on their own, and (at least when I’ve played it) no actual jungle creatures burst from the board to terrorize your community. What a shame. 2 stars out of 5.