The Game Awaits


A while back I took a look at Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, the 2017 reinvention (and subtle sequel to) the 1995 family favorite Jumanji. (We also reviewed Zathura as well, but that film doesn’t really have much bearing on our subject today.) At the time I didn’t have access to the original film, either as a physical copy in my collection (because, as a kid, Jumanji bored me) or on streaming services. Like so many titles, the movie existed in this null zone online, unavailable on any streaming network unless you were willing to pay a premium to rent it… and I wasn’t. So I reviewed what I could at the time and ignored the rest. These things happen when you’re trying to cover a series in these modern, streaming times (sadly).

Thankfully, with a year-plus wait the original 1995 film became available once more and I was able to watch it on Amazon PrimeWhile Netflix might be the largest streaming seervice right now, other major contenders have come into the game. One of the biggest, and best funded, is Amazon Prime, the streaming-service add-on packing with free delivery and all kinds of other perks Amazon gives its members. And, with the backing of its corporate parent, this streaming service very well could become the market leader.. I feel like such a shill when I say that, but this isn’t a paid advertisement for Prime. I just happen to have it and I’ve been going through their catalog of stuff to watch. Jumanji just so happened to be there and it felt fortuitous to go back and see if this “classic”, as some put it, was worth all the hype. And, credit where it’s due, the film does have an interesting hook and a lot of CGI action to be had for a live action movie of that era. Despite this, though, adult me was just as bored with the film as young me, and I think that’s because once you know what the hook of the film is, much of the surprise is lost. Then it’s just it a live action film with bad CGI that fails to live up to the hype.

In 1969 Brantford, NH, Allan Parrish (played as a kid by Adam Hann-Byrd) is a nerdy kid who gets picked on by the local bullies all the time. After running to his father’s factory to escape them, his dad, Sam Parrish (Jonathan Hyde), sends him out to face the bullies telling the kid, “you have to face them like a man.” So he does, which results in him getting a black eye and the bullies stealing his bike. But while he’s bruised and angry, Allan stumbles on a buried copy of Jumanji. He grabs it, takes it home, and leaves it forgotten until that night when, after fighting with his dad, Allan thinks about running away. His friend Sarah Whittle (played as a kid by Laura Bell Bundy) returns his bike, but it’s the sound of drums that distracts them both. The game is calling and, after a bad roll, Allan is sucked away into the board game, leaving Sarah to run away, screaming.

Twenty six years later, new people move into the old Parrish house. Abandoned sometime after Allan disappeared, it was up for sale when Nora Shepherd (Bebe Neuwirth) wanted to buy it to house her and her niece and nephew, Judy (Kirsten Dunst) and Peter (Bradley Pierce). The two kids had just lost their parents in a car accident and are having trouble adjusting to their new life. But the new house has a secret, that board game, Jumanji, and on the first day of school when they should go to the bus, the drums start calling. A roll of five brings out Allan (now played as an adult by Robin Williams) from the board, now older and grizzled, having been living in the jungles within the game all this time. But now that he’s free all he wants to do is escape the game and never come back. Except that the game has to be played and all four players – Judy, Peter, Allan and Sarah (now played as an adult by Bonnie Hunt) – have to finish it. Otherwise the dangers of Jumanji will come out into the real world and ruin everything in this small town.

Jumanji is a film with one really solid idea: when you play the game the events of the board game come to you. It starts in 1969 with bats flying out, and then Allan getting sucked in, but then we have a lion take over the Parrish house, bugs flying out to sting all kinds of people, monkeys that go around raiding kitchens and stealing cars, and so much more. It’s a fun idea in concept and can lead to a few interesting scenes and visual setups. The issue is that its cute ideas, and visual setups, are really all the movie has to offer. What it’s lacking is any real substance around those big moments.

The meat of the story really happens in 1969. Young Allan (not a spin-off of The Big Bang Theory) wants to become bolder and learn to stand up to his bullies. He does this, but then gets mad at his dad who is, in a way, another bully. So he has to learn who he wants to be and what he wants out of life. Allan is our protagonist but, due to the twists of the film, he’s missing for about a third of the runtime. We don’t get to see his adventures inside of Jumanji (which, frankly, sounds like a really wild idea for a movie so… good thing they did that in the sequel), only the aftermath after he’s already done a lot of growing up. And then (spoilers for a nearly 30 year old movie) when the game is over he goes back to 1969, with Sarah, and they get to do their lives all over again but better. So 1969 is our story.

The two kids, Judy and Peter, who should be our new protagonists when they come on screen really don’t have any meat to their character at all. Judy is a serial liar but the film never actually punishes her for that. In fact, there are times where her ability to spin stories and lie convincingly are considered a bonus for the team playing the game. It’s a useful skill for her to bring out when need be. Meanwhile it’s Peter who cheats at the game part way into the movie and gets punished by the game turning him into a half monkey/half kid hybrid. Judy seems like the one that would cheat, and that would be a lesson to teach her for being untruthful, but the film doesn’t feel like punishing her or giving her any character growth. And, hell, adult Sarah has even less character development than that, simply e/xisting as a love interest for Allan and so she can roll the dice on her turn.

If we’re being fair, the reason the film doesn’t invest too heavily in Jusd or Peter or Sarah is because they’ll all get reset when the game is over and Allan and Sarah go back to 1969. Why invest in their characters at all if everything will get reset once the game is over. This is something that the sequel manages to fix by having the characters get sucked into the game and retaining their memories when they exit. They can learn lessons and grow to be better people, but only Allan and Sarah have that option and, for Sarah, all she needs is to go back to 1969 and do it all again. It isn’t a setup that really leads to solid characters or great moments of emotional depth. Nothing matters because it’ll all get reset in their end.

What we then have, in the absence of great character depth, is a movie where we watch people roll dice and then react to things happening. If you’ve ever sat on the sidelines of a board game and watched other people play you know exactly how thrilling that sounds. Spoiler: it’s not thrilling at all. This is where the action set pieces come into play. Without being able to have the characters do anything of consequence, the film fills its time with things happening around them. Monkeys and killer plants and rinos and more all come out, creating more and more chaos around the characters. But it doesn’t actually amount to much since these characters have plot armor and everything will get reset in the end. There really isn’t any tension at all simply because the film will reset everything in the end. All the cool CGI in the world can’t correct that.

But then, this CGI isn’t really that great. Maybe back in 1995 it was thrilling to see, but viewing it now there’s no arguing that the CGI in this film is just bad. Some of the creature effects are a blend of practical effects and CGI and those work better (when in doubt, go practical). But anything that’s a full CGI creation just looks bad now. Particularly terrible looking are the monkeys, all of which look like they were rendered in an era-appropriate screen saver. Considering this film came out around the same time as Jurassic Park it’s almost impressive how much worse this movie looks in comparison.

That is not to say you’re wrong for liking Jumanji. It does have surface thrills and a lot of action. It’s the kind of film I can see popping on just so it plays and makes noise while you’re doing stuff. As a small kid, it probably was a great distraction, giving you bright sights and a lot of noise to watch over and over. But I was just the wrong age for the film at the time and I don’t have rose-tinted glasses for it now. I see it as just a shallow, linear adventure with bad special effects and, for me, the film has simply never lived up to the hype.