Jumanji: revisiting the original film

It's being remade with Dwayne Johnson - but what's so special about the original Jumanji? We take a look back...

This article comes from Den of Geek UK.

The 1990s saw a number of leaps forward in computer generated effects, from Terminator 2: Judgment Day at the beginning of the decade to The Matrix near the end. Hollywood blockbusters reflected the boom in visual effects accordingly and some films hold up better than others – 1995’s Jumanji fits right in the middle.

In line with the special effects wizardry that had brought dinosaurs to the big screen in Jurassic Park a couple of years prior, Joe Johnston’s wacky fantasy adventure unleashed a jungle on small town America with funny and scary results. With a reboot/belated sequel on the horizon, it’s interesting to look back at how this one is more fondly remembered, whether as a visual effects extravaganza or as an action packed family movie.

Based on the children’s book by Chris Van Allsburg, Jumanji is a magical, jungle-themed board game that actualises the characters and creatures involved in gameplay in the real world, often to chaotic effect. When young Alan Parrish discovers it in 1969, buried at a building site in the small New Hampshire town of Brantford, he falls afoul of its rules and is sucked into the game, much to the horror of his friend Sarah.

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26 years later, orphaned siblings Judy (Kirsten Dunst) and Peter (Bradley Pierce) move into the reputedly haunted Parrish house with their aunt Nora (Bebe Neuwirth), who has bought the house as a fixer-upper. When they discover the game, the kids unleash the jungle upon Brantford. Only with the help of a grown-up Alan (Robin Williams) and Sarah (Bonnie Hunt) can they reach Jumanji and undo its magical and mischievous effects.

The right age to see Jumanji when it was first in cinemas was any age at which your parents were unsure of whether it would be too scary for you. The film received a PG certificate for its scarier scenes, and was hyped up for being scary enough that Robin Williams admitted in interviews that he wouldn’t let his own kids watch it. As marketing goes, it’s genius – as someone who was in primary school when the film was released, but only old enough to have watched Jurassic Park on VHS from behind a cushion, I was absolutely desperate to see it when it arrived in UK cinemas in 1996.

Looking back on it now, the tone of the film is as wild as the creatures who inhabit it. The protracted opening gives us a prologue 100 years before we meet any of the main characters, as two young boys bury the game in 1869 as it issues haunting tribal drumbeats. “May God have mercy on their soul”, says one of them at the prospect of anyone finding it in years to come. Even though the tone goes on a bit of a rollercoaster from here on, this sets a nicely over-the-top timbre that the film hits consistently.

The second prologue introduces a young Alan in the 1960s. This is where the film shows its hand as a slightly premature Amblin throwback, with the clean and prosperous idyll of Brantford in 1969 echoing the small towns that the likes of Spielberg, Zemeckis and Dante had up-ended in the previous decade.

In the middle of this, Alan struggles with bullies and the disdain of his father Sam (Jonathan Hyde), a captain of industry who keeps urging his son to be a man. Sam scares him enough that he won’t own up to an incident at the Parrishes’ shoe factory that got a young designer called Carl (David Alan Grier) fired. The two argue at dinner right before Alan has his fateful date with Sarah and the game, setting up his inability to stand up for himself. But by disappearing, his absence creates a void in the nice little town into which it crumbles over the following 26 years.

When we meet Peter and Judy in 1995, the Parrish house is in disrepair and is the subject of malicious local rumours that Alan was murdered there. When Williams emerges from the jungle as the bearded and bedraggled Alan, he’s grown up dogged by fear and goodness knows what else only to find that his home has been overtaken by economic depression, with that same town centre blighted by graffiti and ‘Everything Must Go’ signs.

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On a more entertaining level, it’s also gradually overtaken by the same horrors he has had to face by himself for more than two decades, which is where the effects come in. With each roll of the dice, new creatures and climate changes are conjured up by the game, always accompanied by an on-the-nose rhyming couplet that alludes to monkeys, monsoons and more.

As is usually the case for groundbreaking effects films of this era, the practical effects are sturdier against the test of time than the CGI creations. The monkeys certainly don’t look as impressive as they once did (and they struggled back then), but it’s fun to watch when Peter breaks a rule and gets punished by gradually reverting into a monkey boy, complete with prosthetic make-up and tail.

As dated as it sometimes looks, the production design is impeccable. The famous game prop, which was sold for $60,000 at auction in 2014, looks appropriately otherworldly, like no actual board game you’ve ever seen. The set design is great too, ranging from the three decades’ worth of difference between Brantford in the prosperous 1960s and the economically deprived town it has become, to the chaos of the jungle that materialises in Alan’s family home.

But the most impressively executed sequence has an elephant walk over a car in which monkey-Peter is hiding. The elephant is CG, but the chassis crumpling around the young boy as he cowers in the footwell is all practical and the marriage of techniques works magnificently. It’s a scary sequence too, as the most ‘real’ of all the film’s life-threatening situations, but there’s nothing wrong with a few scares in a film about overcoming fear.

Robin Williams played a number of kids who grew up wrong in his family movies throughout the 1990s, with this nestling snugly between Spielberg’s Hook and Francis Ford Coppola’s Jack. But even between those two great filmmakers, it’s Johnston who gets the best out of him as a character who isn’t typically funny, but rather clowns to keep from crying every once in a while, barely concealing his terror at having to finish the game now that he’s finally home.

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This is supplemented by utilising an aspect of the Peter Pan story that wouldn’t have fit into Hook, by having Hyde in a dual role as Alan’s father and his arch-nemesis from Jumanji, a big game hunter called Van Pelt. As in the tradition of dual performances of Mr. Darling and Captain Hook by the same actor, the latter, more cartoonish role gives Hyde a chance to camp it up.

There’s a joke that feels a lot more edgy nowadays where he wanders into a gun shop and gets an assault weapon to replace his elephant gun with no attempt at a background check, but in the main, Van Pelt brings focus back to Alan’s arc throughout the film as he runs around blasting things indiscriminately.

Less convincingly, Grier’s Carl shoulders most of the comic relief as the shoe designer who was drummed out after Sam sacked him for Alan’s mistake and joined the local police instead. Grier, who was actually four years younger than Williams, plays a character who’s 26 years older than he looks, which typifies the way in which the film is all over the place with its tone and timings.

When Alan ultimately wins Jumanji, the game does what it says in the instructions and resets time to 1969, erasing the timeline we’ve been watching and planting Alan and Sarah back into their young selves, with the benefit of their 26 years’ experience intact in their memories. It’s a neat solution on which to end the film, cemented by yet another timeshift to the restored 1995 in which Alan and Sarah run Parrish Shoes together and Judy and Peter’s parents are still alive.

Jumanji was a big hit, grossing $262m around the world on a $65m production budget, and there were a few attempts to make the sequel hinted at in the final scene, in which the game washes up on a beach in France and is discovered by some potential new players. One pitch of the sequel would have been set in America again, in the White House no less, as the US President played the game with the First Family.

Until now, those attempts never came to fruition. An animated spin-off series ran from 1996 to 1999, rebooting and inverting the premise so that Judy and Peter would visit a still-trapped Alan in the jungle every episode, trying to solve a moral riddle in their clues while fighting off the population of Jumanji.

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Between the film and the cartoon, Jumanji‘s cultural cache is significant enough that it provoked much uproar and gnashing of teeth when Jake Kasdan’s sequel was originally announced. The new film will star Dwayne Johnson, Jack Black, Kevin Hart and Karen Gillan as ‘avatars’ within the game, and Johnson has been adamant that the sequel is a “continuation” of the original that will “honour” the late, great Robin Williams. Wherever they’re going with it, there’s plenty of mileage in the premise for another roll of the dice.

Whether the die-hard fans will be satisfied by the new film remains to be seen, but as always, no reboot can fully overwrite the original. As wacky and convoluted as it is, it’s a playful and typically adventurous outing from Joe Johnston, which boasts some high concept thrills and an enjoyably understated performance from Williams. Its nostalgia value cannot be underestimated for viewers of a certain age, but it’s also an entertaining example of the VFX-daffy event films of the 1990s.