At the Movies with Alan Gekko: Jumanji “95”

MPAA Rating: PG/ Genre: Fantasy-Comedy-Adventure/ Stars: Robin Williams, Kirsten Dunst, Bradley Pierce, Bonnie Hunt, David Alan Grier, Jonathan Hyde, Bebe Neuwirth, James Handy, Patricia Clarkson, Malcolm Stewart, Annabel Kershaw, Gary Thorup/ Runtime: 104 minutes

For the start of this review I would like you, movie lovers, to think about the last time you played a board game with either your friends or family be it Monopoly, Life, or even Trivial Pursuit (if anyone still plays that). Now imagine playing a game where every time you roll that pair of dice, what is at stake is infinitely more significant than having to go back a few places on the board, paying 500 dollars, or going to the game’s version of jail. Indeed what if, instead of sinking the other person’s ship or not knowing the answer to the trivia question, the potential side effects of each turn would result in not only things that could kill you, but also alter the real world around you? In case you haven’t figured out it yet this was the plot of a little movie from 1995 called Jumanji, and despite the 2nd and 3rd one getting a lot more attention nowadays, it is still worth pointing out that for a generation of people this was a defining film of our childhoods (this writer’s included). Yet if you’ve somehow never had the chance to witness a genuine piece of movie magic that is headed by a performance from one of the most magical entertainers we’ve ever been blessed with and supported by a game, pun intended, supporting cast and fantastic work from the visual effects department, Jumanji is a truly engaging mix of both said visual effects and unique movie magic at work that puts a definitely darker, but still fun twist on both the idea of “family game night” and the phrase “it’s a jungle out there”.

The plot is as follows: Jumanji opens up its riveting tale for viewers in the long gone time and place known as 1969 New Hampshire, and introduces us to a young man by the name Alan Parrish. A young man who is ordinary in every way except for the fact that his family is pretty much town royalty due to his father being responsible for keeping the vast majority of the town employed. However, during a rather unusually eventful day in the life of our young hero, his life will become unordinary in another way courtesy of his discovery of a long-ago buried board game at a construction site near the shoe factory his father owns. Yet Alan’s day, we soon learn is about to go from bad to worse, when during a fight with his old man he vows to both run away from home and to never talk to his dad ever again. Yet before heading out with his suitcase full of clothes, bread, and peanut butter (hey a kid has to eat even if he is running away from home), he decides to investigate his odd new acquisition, known as “Jumanji”, and whilst playing it with his friend Sarah, is witness first to a group of bats then, on the very next roll of the dice, is actually pulled hands-first into the game itself and never to be seen nor heard from again (in all fairness he DID want to never come home again, but I don’t think THIS is what he had in mind). Two decades and some change later, the Parrish house has all but been vacated and in desperate need of someone to move in and renovate the place and give it a new sense of both life and direction for the future. To that end, we soon see an answer to this coming in the form of an out-of-towner by the name of Nora, with her niece and nephew by the name of Judy and Peter respectively, soon moving in with the desire of transforming the old homestead into a luxury bed and breakfast. However one day whilst getting ready to head for school, Judy and Peter soon begin to hear an eerie series of drum-like thumping sounds coming from the mysterious and cluttered attic. Upon investigation, they are astonished to find that the source of the board game, even if we know better, and little do they realize, upon sitting down to play, just what they are about to get themselves into. Of course, as should be expected, one good turn deserves another and before Judy and Peter know it, they’ve unleashed upon the world killer mosquitoes that don’t need West Nile Virus in order to inflict a health scare, a squad of mischievous monkeys that would put Curious George to shame, a hungry and vicious lion, and a wild man-child who they soon discover is an adult Alan Parish free from the game at long last. Unfortunately, our dynamic trio soon discover that it is only by a player winning the game can they restore everything and get things back to normal. Thus our intrepid trio, with a heavily reluctant also grown-up Sarah Whittle along for the ride, set out to play the game in full, and in the process bringing new meaning to both the phrase “Are You Game?”, and also the theory that games can have quite the effect on one’s physical health…

Now if this film’s greatest positive is the originality, despite being based on a book by the same author who gave us The Polar Express, then its second best positive is the intricate balancing act that film helmer Joe Johnston manages to maintain through the duration of the movie. I say this because not only can this film, when it chooses to be, downright dark and terrifying, but it also can be quite lively, funny, and upbeat at the same time. Indeed this is a movie which is able to walk on a tightrope that so many other films have tried to and failed, and does with a degree of both skill and confidence about it. As for the cast they are all at the top of their game. Indeed, in the quasi-sorta lead, we see that Robin Williams truly is a brilliant for this film and its roller-coaster ride style mayhem. Indeed not only is he most assuredly brilliant when playing a boy stuck in the body of a man, but he also is able to handle the darker elements with both physicality and charisma in equal measure. It should also be noted that everyone in the supporting cast including Bonnie Hunt, Jonathan Hunt in a dual performance, and Kirsten Dunst and Bradley Pierce amongst others also do a wonderful job at playing their roles brilliantly within the same parameters as they too prove to be serious when battling the things the game sends up, but also showing they too can go with the flow and engage in the under-the-surface thread of humor and good natured fun that gives the film the ability to be both scary and amusing at the same time. To that end, this film, much like its lead performer was, truly is a overflowing fountain of manic energy. Indeed it may build and build and the vast majority of moments in this may seem like the perfect way to wrap things up, but they are quickly overridden by something more outlandish yet easily believable since this is a movie that’s plot allows for it with every moment to go as gleefully over-the-top as possible.

Also since this film is quite literally heaven for a lot of material that is the kind of stuff that cartoonish nightmares truly can and are made of, it should also not exactly come as any kind of surprise to learn that this film offers the viewer a truly impressive smorgasbord of effects work to aid in bringing the magic behind the story vividly to life. Indeed, during the duration of the film’s runtime, we as an audience become witnesses to vicious plants that are capable of crushing cars (when not singing to their owner Seymour to feed them), a squad of monkeys that can literally drive any vehicle that they wish, a stampede of rhinos, elephants, and other large animals going on a rampage through town (and really making the townsfolk wish they had collision coverage on their cars), a flood and earthquake decimating a house, a lion taking an afternoon siesta on a bed, a vicious pack of mosquitos that as big as vultures and as ruthless as a pack of piranha, and a whole squad of other assorted creepy and mystical jungle ingredients which all come together to help make this movie work on the level that it does. Indeed, this film’s team of effects specialists must have put in quite a fair amount of time in making this film succeed from their corner, and while there aren’t a whole lot of films that can incorporate this much effects work and still succeed, but this film proves that even after all the effects have been utilized, the audience will still want to see more. Yes, to be fair, there may be some moments where the effects go a little bit over the top, but with how skilled it is all handled, the original source material on which the film is based, and how carefully the movie is able to navigate the insanity that comes from the game without looking crazy to begin with all have a critical role in ensuring that this film works on the level of old-fashioned entertainment done well that it ultimately is able to accomplish.

All in all I am delighted to say that, upon rewatching this timeless classic from my weirder than average childhood, Jumanji really truly does excel still at cutting absolutely zero in the way of corners and also does not hesitate for even a millisecond in completely and totally unleashing an unsuspecting audience with everything that it has its corner of the jungle so to speak. Yes whilst normally doing such a thing would normally be a huge red flag for how well a film is going to turn out with a general movie-going audience, there are no such dilemmas to be found here. That is because the film’s very story through and through is one which both permits and encourages two very specific things for the people working both in front and of behind the camera to do. The first of these things is go completely over the top as possible and throw everything at you including the kitchen sink (those darn monkeys). The second is to insert this cast of characters, but particularly the main quartet at the heart of the story into one absolutely chaotic and anarchy-driven set of circumstances after another that, despite testing their resolve quite hardily, still sees them driven and ready to take on the next challenge and the next until the game is done and, hopefully, everything can be returned back to normal. Indeed suffice it to say then that this film really truly is the very dictionary definition of a crowd-pleasing film if the definition first originated all the way back in 1995. Indeed Jumanji is engaging, entertaining, delightfully cast with that truly iconic comedic madcap hurricane that was Mr. Robin Williams leading the way, unique through and through, and just a truly delightful way to escape for a couple of hours that you and the whole family, provided they are over the age of about 6, will want to roll the dice on and see what happens as a result time and time again. On a scale of 1-5 I give Jumanji “95” a solid 3.5 out of 5.