Director: Joe Johnston
Screenplay: Greg Taylor, Jonathan Hensleigh, Jim Strain
Starring: Robin Williams, Bonnie Hunt, Kirsten Dunst, Bradley Pierce, David Alan Grier, Jonathan Hyde, Bebe Neuwirth
Runtime: 104 Minutes
Original UK Release: 1996
Joe Johnston’s Jumanji might be the best cinematic metaphor ever for the eternal nightmare of playing board games with the family, but at the same time it’s a really strong, exceptionally entertaining and downright frightening fantasy adventure picture that manages to capitalise on star Robin Williams' mainstream popularity and blockbuster success in the 1990s.
There may be a slow start to the main story as the 1969 sequence plays out, but it’s all in the aid of building character. There’s a surprising amount of emotion behind the characters at the centre of the story, from the older generation of Alan Parish (Robin Williams) and Sarah Whittle (Bonnie Hunt), to the young siblings Judy (Kirsten Dunst) and Peter Shepherd (Bradley Pierce).
The performances from all are really strong and they share a great onscreen chemistry. Williams’ decision to play the role straight might seem initially against his better (or worse) instincts, but he injects a great sense of energy into the film with his character holding the strongest story arc of the main characters.
Although based on the 1981 fantasy children’s book by Chris Van Allsburg, Jumanji could just as easily be read as a post-modern reinvention of the Peter Pan story. Where a young boy not ready to grow up and accept the responsibilities of adulthood escapes to a mystical world, and upon returning to the world in the form of a fully grown man he must come to a direct confrontation with Van Pelt (Jonathan Hyde), a 20th-century hunter from the jungles of Jumanji who has been following him; a manifested representation of the bully father figure that he imagined for himself and ran from a child (also played by Jonathan Hyde in a callback to the stage performances of Captain Hook).
Joe Johnston's films always have a very lived in aesthetic and this is a spectacularly looking and sounding film, right down to the worn-out coat and shirt that Williams dons throughout as a throwback to vintage 50’s adventure tales. The buffoonery of the genre sticks its chin out at every opportunity, never taking itself too seriously but sticking to the rules that it lays out for itself. This is further elevated by a brassy and thunderous James Horner score.
The creatures that emerge from the game at every dice throw are really nasty pieces of work, brought to life through a mixture of animatronics and CGI effects that lift them ever so slightly out of reality with hightened features and expressions. For the most part they look really great, and the design of the wooden board game is a gorgeously strange creation. It’s never explained how or why the board game exists, whether its some form of twisted torment or a gateway to another world, but that’s beside the point and the imagination fills in the gaps.
The sleight of hand it plays is that the central mythical jungle of Jumanji is one that is never seen, but through the way in which Alan speaks of it, as well as the heightened-reality creatures that escape from it, you feel that this really is the place where nightmares come from. There’s an attention paid to the changing world around them as the game goes on, including the bewildering and catastrophic changes that undergo the town when the creatures are let loose (everyone just loots), including a great running gag involving the last rhino of the stampede being always a few paces behind gasping for breath.
The film isn’t perfect, some side characters could certainly do with more depth, including as sidelined and constantly suffering police officer (David Alan Grier), but its helped in large by a surprisingly tight and adventurous screenplay that trims the fat of the story to a brisk runtime that doesn’t skimp on character focus and engagement.
While sharing some uneven slapstick tones and a gaunt plot by some standards, Jumanji is a funny, heartfelt, scary and unique family adventure that (besides some now shoddy looking CGI) manages to please on a multitude of levels.