Updated: Aug 1, 2021
When I was a little kid, my brother and I used to be up for almost any adventurous activity we set our minds to. We were prone to explore outside our home, and we even built a treehouse once upon a time. Man, those were the days. And, I remember being indifferent towards board games – though, to be fair, I was a lot less patient back then – but thanks to games like Scrabble, I suddenly found them more and more exciting.
So, what happens when these two different yet equally fun activities mesh together to become something so different and unnatural?
Well, this is where Jumanji comes in.
The story centers on four different people, all of whom would eventually have collaborated in connection to the game. The first two characters were Alan Parrish and Sarah Whittle. In 1969, while Alan was by his father’s shoe factory, he heard a series of beating drums and was tempted to follow that noise until he unearthed a chest buried underground. Opening the chest, Alan discovered a mysterious game called Jumanji and decided to take it home. When his friend, Sarah, came on over to bring back his bike from a group of bullies – I’ll get to that soon – Alan invited her to play the game after she, too, heard the beating drums. After two turns, however, Alan stumbled into the one clue from the game that really did him in:
In the jungle, you must wait
until the dice read five or eight
And when I say “did him in,” I mean that the game sucked him inside itself through a vortex, straight to the jungle of the game. And Sarah would’ve gotten him out with a five or eight on her next turn or two... had it not been for what the first clue she and Alan ever had in the game warned them about:
At night, they fly, you better run,
These winged things are not much fun
The winged things in question happened to be a herd of African bats that scared Sarah off after emerging from the fireplace. So, the game, and Alan, were left alone and subject to outlandish rumors about his disappearance for the next 26 years.
And this leads to the other two main characters: Judy and Peter Shepherd. In 1995, these two children moved into the Parrish home with their Aunt Nora after their parents died in a car accident up in Canada. Shortly after getting settled in the house, and as they were exploring the attic, both Judy and Peter heard the beating drums, just like Alan and Sarah did, and were lured into the game of Jumanji after following the beating drums.
After starting the game, they both were three turns in when they inadvertently unleashed Alan from his prison, thanks to Peter rolling a five. Alan was now wearing a suit made out of jungle leaves, and, like any fish-out-of-water story, he tried to learn all about what Brantford became in 1995 compared to the one he knew from 1969, while still excited about being back home again after such a long time. He also started to catch on to how Judy and Peter played the game that got him trapped. When they discovered that the next turn was not Judy’s, or Peter’s, or even Alan’s, they tracked down Sarah, who previously went through over 2,000 hours of therapy in response to the horrible night in which Alan became trapped in the game. So then, Alan, Sarah, Judy, and Peter all battened down the hatches and prepared to finally finish the game, which gradually unleashed all kinds of jungle chaos in the house – including a lion, a horde of giant mosquitoes, a band of aggressive monkeys, a stampede of charging rhinos and elephants, and even a fierce hunter named Van Pelt – before they eventually bled out into the rest of Brantford.
The beginning of the movie focused on one of each pair of main characters at a time before they ultimately met up, but this made it feel a touch too unfocused. It’s like the film wanted to introduce us to one set of characters before tossing them aside to focus on the next set and then decided to compile them into one. I feel like the beginning would’ve felt smoother if the film flip-flopped between the two timelines to see how both groups of characters got to where they ended up as it built up to their ultimate meeting. Because the film wanted us to believe that Alan, Sarah, Judy, and Peter’s roles in the story were of equal importance, introducing them this way might have been more helpful and would have allowed the audience to identify with them more.
Speaking of which, I found the characterizations to be quite uneven. Judy and Peter didn’t display that much personality outside of reeling in their parents’ deaths a few months before moving to Brantford. Peter was pretty shy and silent for a good portion of his first scenes in the movie, and Judy was just slightly disheartened while, on the side, also slightly talented with trickery. For example, when speaking with the realtor, Judy made it look like she was utterly broken up about their parents’ deaths and needed a minute when really, she was just playing her so she wouldn’t have needed to talk to her.
That made me wonder for some time what Judy and Peter were like even before their parents’ deaths. The closest we got to that was their relationship with Aunt Nora, their father’s sister, who decided to look after them despite not being very good at communicating with them. After that, we see that Peter was brave enough to fetch the Jumanji board game later on after a pelican stole it, so that told me that he might have been like that before his parents died. And Judy, I don’t know, there was not enough established with her. She looked like she was the supportive big sister to Peter, which was an admirable trait for her to have. Outside of that, however, she and Peter were a skosh standard with some bits and pieces of distinguishable features and activities from them now and then.
On the other hand, of course, Alan and Sarah both had some slightly more defining characteristics to each of them, especially when they both grew up. Alan was a slightly wimpish kid who was struggling with overcoming his fears and facing them, whether they concerned the bullies who picked on him when he was a kid or the chaotic activities of Jumanji both in and out of the game when he was an adult. Alan also had some confusion about what being a Parrish was all about because one, one of his ancestors founded the city of Brantford, and two, his father wanted him to go to Cliffside - a private school for boys - as his way of congratulating Alan for standing up to the bullies. Maybe having a shred of connection to a town’s legacy made him feel like an outcast for being treated like he was more privileged than others. Who knows? And, the way I saw it, the way he dealt with the Jumanji game may have encouraged him to know when to find the courage and confront his fears. This also resulted in a slightly cocky attitude from him that at one point made him realize for a minute just how much like his father he’s become.
And with Sarah, her arc had more of a tragic angle to it. When she was first mentioned, she was mentioned as the girlfriend of one of the bullies, Billy, who picked on Alan. The first time we saw her, however, she approached Alan with his bike, which she brought back from Billy after he stole it from him, on top of telling him not to pick on Alan. Okay, now that I would’ve liked to see! But after her misadventures with Alan and the bats, she was just traumatized by that encounter and his disappearance, so she had to cope with what she saw, or thought she saw, and try to readjust herself after that horrifying incident. So, her reactions and dilemmas when she saw both Alan and the Jumanji game for the first time in 26 years were justified. Although, seeing her try to come to her senses, battle her inner demons, and confront the traumas of her past were just as interesting to see.
For a little while, something that was nudging me was that one of the film’s most significant themes, when not dealing with all the African chaos the game unleashed onto the characters and on Brantford, was about learning when and how to face your fears. We all know what Alan, Sarah, and especially Peter had to go through. But when not coping with his parents’ deaths, Peter still rose to the occasion and did what he thought he needed to do to set things right, so I suppose he did the most exemplifying of the movie’s themes.
But there may not have been much for Judy to overcome, outside of her also trying to get over her parents’ deaths too. So, what could’ve been on the line for Judy and Peter after losing their parents and while experiencing the game? If bravery was the movie’s theme, shouldn’t it have applied to all the main characters in equal measure? And not just Alan or Sarah?
However, with all of this in mind, though I wish the characterizations and theme could have been embellished more, I reflected on it feeling like they may have represented the movie’s intended age groups. With Judy and Peter, they felt more like characters for the kids to relate to, whereas Alan and Sarah felt more like characters for the grown-ups to relate to. In retrospect, given that this was a family film, this sort of made sense. But still, a little extra characterization from all of them would have been nice.
The first thing I will say about the acting was that Bonnie Hunt’s performance as the adult Sarah Whittle was a little awkward and a tad too skittish. She always felt like she was trying to squeeze in moments of humor in between her panic attacks and moments of growth, and some of them fell pretty flat. But when she’s confident, somehow, she felt more interesting, and Hunt may probably have been at her best when portraying her this way.
While I wouldn’t go so far as to call the rest of the performances Oscar-winners, eight times out of ten, they were substantial, and many of the actors and actresses put a noticeable amount of effort into their roles.
Kirsten Dunst allowed her character, Judy, to display her emotional facades and hectic episodes with a dash of conviction. Other times, she expressed her mischievous side with a sense of fun to it, too. That was why she looked like a good older sister for Peter despite her character not being given enough complexities. Bradley Pierce conveyed Peter Shepherd with something of a Cowardly Lion vibe to him. He started as a shy boy before slowly peeling away his layers to express himself as braver than he seemed, especially during his more tense moments.
I should also mention Jonathan Hyde here because he played two characters in the movie, and he played them very well. One was Alan’s high-standing and well-meaning, but overtly stern, father Sam Parrish, and the other was Alan’s archenemy from the game, hunter Van Pelt. Hyde played both of his characters with some fierce pomp to them, and because they were both connected to Alan, the symbolic implications between the three of them have only blossomed with interpretation. With Sam, Alan felt pressured into doing or being something he didn’t want to be, mainly because they concerned his family heritage. And Van Pelt felt like he represented two things: one, Alan’s insecurities since the mere implications of him from one of the game clues made Alan’s blood freeze a little. And two, Van Pelt felt like he was the game personified since he knew who rolled the dice and whose turn it was at one point. Not only that, but Van Pelt was just a loose cannon, with him firing at every which spot was within his reach, first with an elephant gun and then with a Daewoo USAS-12. So the fact that he had many ties with the main character’s dilemmas, besides always being ready to pull the trigger without a moment’s hesitation, made him feel more legitimately threatening.
And frankly, for all the A-actor status he had from this film, Robin Williams felt super compelling as the adult Alan Parrish. He conveyed his character with shreds of innocence from his childhood years while also spicing him up with shades of turmoil and cockiness to him. Regarding Alan’s turmoil, Williams made it 100% clear that it all came from Alan’s experiences in the Jumanji board game. His mannerisms and reactions to the ongoing circumstances felt equivalent to those of a war veteran who went through Hell and back, only in Alan’s case, he lived there. And it’s not like Christopher Walken in MouseHunt, where the war-esque persona was a comedic exaggeration. No, I legitimately felt that from Robin Williams as if he meant it. And about his cocky attitude, he developed that from his experiences in Jumanji, too, but also partially from his family upbringing by his father, who continually pressured him to stand up to his fears. This resulted in him clashing a bit with Sarah and even with Peter about when to feel afraid, when to be brave, what they should stand up to, and what they should run away from. I even sensed some slight twinges of jealousy from him as far as Peter was concerned. For example, when Peter swooped down to snatch the Jumanji board game, Alan subtly reacted to his amazing feats as if, despite his time in Jumanji, he felt like Peter was showing him up a bit. And when he had to confront Van Pelt, part of it felt like it was his chance to face all the fears he ever had during his time in Jumanji and see just how brave he can really be. All those dynamics with Alan’s dilemmas were being played with like a violin by Robin Williams, so for that reason, he truly shines here.
And I’m just going to say it, doesn’t it feel kind of strange to see Robin Williams unleashed from a mystical prison by the main character(s) in a live-action film after seeing him go through the same thing in Aladdin? Bizarre!
Speaking of mystical, the game itself was imaginative and exciting. The idea of playing a board game that magically makes everything come to life with every turn was just a high-stakes-induced roller coaster ride waiting to happen. Imagine playing Scrabble, and you’re going through it like you’re competing in a game show or a spelling bee. Or imagine playing the game of Life, and you see your life story occurring in front of you. Jumanji played out the same way, too, but besides the activities coming out of it, what made it stand out was how mysterious and dangerous it was. For example, the very beginning of the movie showed two boys in 1869, a hundred years before the events with Alan Parrish ever occurred, going to a remote part of a forest to bury a chest. This was the same chest that Alan would have eventually dug out, so technically, they were burying the game of Jumanji itself. This raised so many interesting questions regarding the game. Where did it come from? How did it come to be? Who put the game together? What was the intention behind the game? How long was it around? Did human hands even make it? These kinds of questions only added to the irresistible intrigue that came with Jumanji.
Something else to note about it is that in the book, the board game was shown as a crazy, escalating game that made everything spring forth to life with every turn. In the movie, besides maintaining those qualities about it, it seemed to have a borderline consciousness to it, too. It was best exemplified by the beating of the drums, which, whenever they blazed on, always gave the game a very ominous presence, even before it was found or unearthed. Not to mention, these two aspects tied into each other. When Judy and Peter heard the beating of the drums and were getting closer and closer to it, the drums became more hectic in their beating, as if the game was saying, “Yeah, you know I’m nearby, don’t you? Well, you’re getting closer now. Warm… Warmer… Warmer…!” And then, when the beating stopped, that’s its way of saying, “Here I am!”
And if that wasn’t eerie or scary enough, it even knew how to retaliate against those who played dirty or didn’t abide by the rules. When Peter attempted to cheat by rolling a twelve, he grew hair, simian features, and even a tail. It may not have carried as many vibes as, say, the boys turning to donkeys on Pleasure Island in Pinocchio, but it’s still pretty unnerving to think about how much of a force it was to be reckoned with in this way.
And it wasn’t just the game; everything and everyone that came out of the game was memorable in how bloodthirsty they were. Van Pelt was aggressive, all right, with his nonstop pursuing of the main characters, but the other beasts of Jumanji? Not only were they diverse – they were comprised of African animals, crocodiles, and even man-eating plants – but they did nothing but lay wreckage wherever they went and onto whomever they encountered. While the monkeys started as brutally playful, they began to get dangerous when they played with knives and even when they hijacked police vehicles, resulting in, among other things, one or two moments of gunplay from them. When the lion of the game first emerged, the way he made his entrance within the attic was beyond spooky. And when the sentient Jumanji flora sprang forth, they rapidly grew and encompassed the Parrish house’s entire interior and had some wrecking moments of their own in town. My God, there was even a purple flower that sprang forth from the floor and shot Judy in the throat with its poisonous barbs, leaving her to die before the game was finished! You think I’m hamming it up with that last one? You could not have been more mistaken, pal.
These all made the consequences of the game and the strategies to beat it feel that much more aggressive and that much more suspenseful, for if there was one thing that Alan, Sarah, and especially Judy and Peter had on the line for playing this game, it might have been their lives.
While I’m still on that subject, the visual effects felt a tad cheap at times, but strangely, they felt satisfactorily cheap. Many of the animals felt real and super lovely to look at whenever they ventured forth from the game and into the real world. However, some animals, like the man-eating plants, the giant spiders, the lion, and especially the monkeys, were conveyed with a hint of either practical blatancy or unnatural, creepy CGI. But honestly, I think that was the idea. Because the game itself was unnatural, anyway, it made sense for the animals and other creatures to express some unnaturalness of their own.
I was especially taken aback by the ending. What happened was, as Alan dropped his dice and rolled them one last time for the winning move, Van Pelt, who held him at gunpoint, fired a shot at him, only for the bullet to stop just a mere few inches away from Alan, and then it, then the rifle from which it was shot, then all the animals, and then finally, Van Pelt, were all sucked into the game via vortex, just like Alan did. And then, when the chaos was all over, Alan and Sarah suddenly found themselves in the same room, in their younger selves, and even back to 1969, just like how it all began. Everything got reversed, including the births of Judy and Peter and the deaths of their parents. What hadn’t changed, however, were the memories and collective maturity of Alan and Sarah, so to them, it felt like getting a do-over in life just for finishing the game, but only because it took them 26 years to do that. Part of this felt like a copout because of how it undid the frightening scenarios, like the destruction of the Parrish house and Brantford, the transformation of Peter, and even Judy getting shot in the throat with the poisonous flower darts. But at the same time, sheesh! If the game really was this powerful, I wondered even more how it ever came into existence. Of course, that just tied into the game’s mysterious nature, so I don’t mind too much. And what happened after they finished the game, like I said, felt like a nice reward after all the mayhem they had to put up with.
Some of the critics’ reactions to this movie, primarily those of Roger Ebert, also caught my interest. While some critics liked the imagination, Ebert was very uncomfortable about its categorization as a family film because he thought that the imagery and scenarios were too intense or too frightening for younger viewers. I can see where he’s coming from, and yes, as I said, the film can be very fierce as far as the game and its inhabitants were concerned. But honestly, for me, that’s what I liked about it. Watching so much intensity in the movie only added to its excitement, which took up the majority of the movie. See, I grew up watching films like Pinocchio (with its Pleasure Island sequence), Aladdin (with its thrill rides that were the Cave of Wonders sequences), The Lion King (with the infamous death of Mufasa), The Hunchback of Notre Dame (hailed nowadays as one of the darkest Disney films ever made), and especially the animated films by Don Bluth. He believed that children could watch anything as long as they came with a happy ending. If kids grew up watching these movies and got a kick out of them, as I did, then I don’t see why they wouldn’t handle films like Jumanji. Besides, a family film that can both hold out on its own creatively and pull no punches always feels like a breath of fresh air.
The book that the movie was based on, written by Chris Van Allsburg, was a really short story, with all the action occurring in just the house, and the main characters being just Judy and Peter. I didn’t read it until over three years ago, and I’m telling you, comparing these two, I was impressed with how much was added to the story and how tense the scenarios were in order to make it work as a movie. For all its crazy energy, they still carried the same sense of imagination that was apparent in Van Allsburg’s original stories. And, it turns out that Van Allsburg himself participated in the movie’s story development, so that helped a great deal.
I remember seeing snippets of this as far back as when I was about five or six years old, and since then, I looked up to Jumanji for its wild action, adventure, and even for how seriously it took itself. And I still do. While it could have used a little more spit shine, Jumanji still stands as a unique and intense film bolstered by its imaginative story and crazy scenarios that came with it.
Are you up for all the hardcore action and imagination that come with Jumanji? Then I have two words for you: game on!
My Rating: A strong B-
— When Judy and Peter rolled the dice and unleashed the lion, what was one of the first things Judy advised to Peter, besides acknowledging it as not real?
Hallucination or not, that is pretty bad advice to give when it’s a lion you’re having to deal with!
—Another thing I should mention regarding the lion was that after being trapped in a bedroom, and as Alan was getting set for his shower, Alan started singing loudly as he cleaned himself up. This resulted in a sort-of priceless reaction from the lion, whose facial expressions can be interpreted as him saying, ”Oh, jeez, can this guy never shut up?” It seems like an appropriate reaction from someone who knew Alan as long as Alan knew him.