Jumanji (1995)

2 Apr


Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Jumanji” is an unusual family movie. It has a fantasy-adventure plot mixed a few elements of “It’s a Wonderful Life.” That’s not bad, but the film contains images and scenes that could frighten younger kids. The film could have been rated PG-13 because it really has that PG-13 feel of it.  Older kids may be entertained by “Jumanji” and maybe some adults as well.

The movie is based on the short children’s book by Chris van Allsburg. It opens in 1869 as two boys bury a crate in the ground in the middle of the night. One asks the other, “What if someone digs it up?” The other prays for them in a dark tone. Then the movie flashes forward a hundred years later to a nice little town called Brantford, New Hampshire. A young boy named Alan Parrish (Adam Hann-Byrd) finds that same crate, opens it, and finds an ancient board game called Jumanji. He takes it home and plays it with a friend. But there’s something unusual about this game—the pieces stick to the board and move by themselves, and then in a mystic manner, a message appears in the middle of the game. The game is magical and has a mind all its own. Unaware of the game’s awesome power, Alan rolls the dice and is sucked into the game with his friend being chased by bats set free from the game.

Now, the movie flashes forward twenty-six years later, Alan’s big house is bought by a woman named Nora (Bebe Neuwirth), who wants to fix the place up for a bed-and-breakfast. She moves in with her adopted niece Judy (Kirsten Dunst) and nephew Peter (Bradley Pierce). Judy and Peter find that same game Jumanji in the attic and begin to play. But when playing, they unleash Alan, now a grown man played by Robin Williams, from the jungle within the board game. Alan is shocked to realize that his parents are dead and the whole town may as well be—everything is closed and practically broken.

But there’s not much time for sympathy; before Alan was set free, a few of Jumanji’s jungle animals have been set free. They are roaming around, hurting people, and slowly but surely destroying the town. Now Alan, Judy, and Peter must finish the game in order to make everything back to normal again. They find Alan’s friend Sarah who started playing the game with him, also now grown up to be played by Bonnie Hunt, and she reluctantly agrees to help.

That leads to one scary event after another as the jungle creatures of Jumanji pop out after every player’s turn. What happens could scare younger children, but others may have a good time with the film—just when you think, “What could possibly happen next,” something bigger happens. The game takes the heroes on an adventure of disastrous proportions, but the destruction will not stop until the game is over.

“Jumanji” is full of ambition—in fact, so full that it gets so close to wearing out its welcome. The special effects are quite special and the heroes react as if they weren’t special effects—that is the effect that is most special, when the cast acts right with them. Also, the second half when everything comes out of the game is a good deal of fun. Among the inhabitants of Jumanji are a rhino stampede, wild monkeys, a lion, giant live pod plants, and giant spiders. Also from the game is a rifle-wielding people-hunter named Van Helt (Jonathan Hyde, who also played Alan’s uptight father) who wants to hunt Alan and kill him.

However, the movie is not just wall-to-wall special effects extravaganza. The movie also has an “It’s a Wonderful Life” feel to it in the way that when Alan is rich and young, the town is lovely. Yet when he returns, he sees what the town is like without him around (his rich shoe factory owner dad spend every cent trying to find him after he disappeared and went broke). Then maybe when all this is over, he can change it all back to perfection. It took me a while to come to that point and it did. That’s what makes “Jumanji” actually kind of innocent and heartwarming to balance out the darker material. The characters are innocent enough for us to root for them and the actors do a good job portraying them. Robin Williams tones down his manic comedic persona and manages to effectively it straight—he’s very likeable here as a result. Bonnie Hunt, Kirsten Dunst, and Bradley Pierce are also good as Williams’ allies. I can also say the same for David Alan Grier, who gives comic relief to this movie as the freaked-out patrol officer.

“Jumanji” isn’t for everyone, or anyone who may get creeped out by a lot of moments in this movie that could scare them. There are some parts of the movie where you’ll crack up but other parts where small children could possibly hide in their parent’s lap while trying to watch it. Like I said, this is a PG-13 movie and if you see this movie and see what happens when giant mosquitoes attack, Van Pelt hunts Alan, or when a giant pod attacks Peter, you’ll know what I mean. Those creepy moments with Joe Johnston’s direction remind us of those creepy moments from those real old children’s movies. “Jumanji” is a good movie with good fun, a fast-paced thrilling edge, and a heartwarming subplot that makes it more special than you might think.

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