It was curiosity, really. During my exploration of the Manchester Metrolink Network in late summer and autumn, I found myself visiting various branches of the second hand electronics, games and DVDs chain, CEX, and coming out with a variety of DVDs really cheap. Sometimes it was the really cheapness that prompted me to buy the DVD, as was the case with this film. I’d enjoyed, on a pleasurably dumb-entertainment level, the two Dwayne Johnson-led Jumanji spin-offs, though my personal viewpoint was more a Karen Gillan-led interest. And before I retired and before the pandemic, one of my work colleagues was a young woman with adamant views, views that allowed for no debate or the least flexibility whatsoever, views which included the insistence that there was only one Jumanji film, the original, and the other two, the ones I’d liked, did not actually exist.
Put all these factors togather, especially the cheapness, and there was a certain inexorability to all of it.
Watching the film was an interesting exercise but ultimately not really more than that. The film seriously cannot be compared to its modern day franchise sequels as the only thing to connect the two is the notional game of ‘Jumanji’ and the two approach the subject from diametrically opposite angles. Whereas in the franchise, ‘Jumanji’ is a video game that sucks its players within itself, to play game avatars whose adventures take place entirely in the fantasy world the game portrays, in the original film it’s a board game whose moves release terrifying and deadly monsters from the theoretical jungle into the real world. The only concrete link is that this film is based upon the idea that, twenty-six years previously (in 1969) Alan Parrish (Adam Hann-Bird as an early teenager) is sucked into the game and is not released (as Robin Williams) until the 1995 of the film.
It’s impossible to guess how I would have reacted to Jumanji if I had seen in in 1995, and equally so if I had somehow contrived to see it first in 2019, but it compares very badly to me now. For one thing, it has a dreadfully slow and disjointed beginning, starting with a double flshback that doesn’t work in any way as well as those that open Chariots of Fire. There’s a short prelude of a box with the name Jumanji on it being buried in 1869, under portentous Hammer Horror film cliche conditions, and a longer sequence revealing young Alan Parrish discovering the game a hundred years later, his troubles with bullies, his dictatorial father and costing his friend Carl Bentley (David Alan Grier), poised as the would-be inventor of the mid-Nineties trainer, his job and finally being sucked into the game, which sends his friend Sarah Whittle running off screaming into the night for a quarter-century of unsuccessful therapy.
Only then do we get to 1995, and there’s still a long way to go yet. Orphans Judy (Kirsten Dunst) and Peter (Bradley Pierce) Shepherd, traumatised by the death of their parents a year earlier in a skiing accident, now live with their Aunt Norah (Bebe Neuwirth), who has bought the old Parrish place dirt cheap. The house is badly dilapidated, and the town that used to depend economically on Parrish Shoes until Sam Parrish neglected his business to look for his son who ran away, is dying a slow but unalterable death.
Finally, and finally is the only operable word, Judy and Peter find the ‘Jumanji’ game and start to play it instead of going to school. They start to release monsters into their own world – mosquitos, monkeys, a lion, all Animatronics/early CGI, looking what was then extremely impressive but now plainly artificial – and finally releasing Robin Williams from the game.
I have ambivalent feelings about Robin Williams. I first saw him in 1979, in the first season of Mork and Mindy, which was utterly hilarious (the first season only: never did a successful sitcom crash so disastrously because of format and cast changes as did that one) and I have often found him funny in films, but not on a consistent basis. To me he’s at his best when he can freewheel, which he agreed not to do here. He’s paired with Bonnie Hunt as the traumsatised adult Sarah, and she’s an improvisational actor as well. Apparently, both were allowed to let off steam by improvising freely, but not for the film itself. It shows, especially with Williams. He’s fettered, supposedly by the tight script, though I can’t see why. The resolution of the film is completing the game, at which point everything resets back to 1969 and none of the intervening twenty-six years has taken place, not for young Alan and Sarah, but whilst the film is rolling it’s not much more than a succession of sequences with no logical progression. Roll the dice, make the move, release another monster (Jonathan Hyde, who plays Sam Parrish at beginning and end, gets a dual role as Big Game Hunter Van Pelt, which I suppose was meant as a psychological reflection of the briefly seen father and son relationship and Alan’s mastering of his fears, in which case it didn’t work for me), and just keep it moving along quickly so that the audience forgets to ask for a real story.
And fast-moving it might have been in 1995 but fast-moving it isn’t now.
Anyway, eventually the last throw of the dice, by Alan, naturally, ends the film abruptly by bouncing us back to 1969, young Alan and Sarah. Though time has reset, the youngsters have all their memories of the game and Alan sets about righting the wrongs of the day he’s just perpetrated, ensuring, as in Welcome to the Jungle, that what went wrong once goes right now, only over a wider range. He and Sarah drop the Jumanji game in the river, she kisses him (despite being a head taller than Adam Hann-Byrd, who lookks to be about 12 to her 14 and anyway she’s got her head in the way so we can safely assume that lips did not meet lips) and we jump to 1995, when they are married and she is heavily pregnant with their first (at her age).
This is where the film scored its best moment by leaning heavily on sentimentality. The Parrish Shoe Company’s Advertising Manager is Harry Shephard, father to Judy and Peter, who Alan and Sarah have been looking forward to meeting ‘again’ for so many years. The Shephards plan a skiing holiday, from which Alan deflects them by insisting on a new campaign, here, right now. Everything that was bad is to be made good again. You can complain that the ending was naff and unrealistic but what place has realism in a film like this, and it touched me. Who wouldn’t want that kind of reset in their lives?
The last scene took after the TV adaptation of Alan Garner’s The Owl Service. Two girls walk along a beach. In their path, half-buried in the sand, is a box, on the lid of which we see ‘-manji’. It is not over. Be very wary.
There was a TV cartoon version in the late Nineties, a sequel-of-sorts based on a completely different book by author Chris Van Allsburg, but the real sequel didn’t arrive until 2016, which ignored 99% of the original (Alan Parrish’s name appears as an Easter Egg) and turned the entire idea on its head, introducing as it did all of the humour that Robin Williams didn’t provide in this film. With all due respect to my former colleague, that’s real where this film isn’t, and it can be returned to CEX next time I visit my local branch. But now I know, and curiosity has been fulfilled.