VOD film review: Jumanji (1995)
Mark Harrison | On 19, Jan 2018
Director: Joe Johnston
Cast: Robin Williams, Bonnie Hunt, Kirsten Dunst, Bradley Pierce, Jonathan Hyde
Watch Jumanji online in the UK: Sky Cinema / NOW / Netflix UK / iTunes / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / TalkTalk TV / Google Play
Do you remember the 1990s? Mark does. On Fridays, he flashes back to the golden decade of our childhood. From family-friendly films to blockbusters we shouldn’t have been watching, get ready for a monthly dose of nostalgia, as we put down our VHS tapes and find out whether the 90s on Netflix are still Live & Kicking.
In both the UK and the USA, the first number one movie at the box office in 2018 was Jumanji: Welcome To The Jungle. The loose sequel, starring Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Karen Gillan and Jack Black, is a huge hit, which is no mean feat for a film that came out a week after a new Star Wars. The film nods to the 1995 original, but tonally, it’s the furthest thing from its predecessor.
Directed by the great Joe Johnston, Jumanji is adapted from a children’s book by Chris Van Allsburg, about a magical jungle-themed board game of the same name. In the movie, we meet young Alan Parrish, a bullied and misunderstood kid who lives in the small town of Brantford, New Hampshire. He discovers the game by chance and plays it with his friend Sarah, only to be imprisoned within the game after fudging the rules.
26 years later, orphaned siblings Judy (Kirsten Dunst) and Peter (Bradley Pierce) move into the deserted Parrish house and find Jumanji and unwittingly join in with Alan’s unfinished game. This unleashes all sorts of carnage upon the house and the surrounding town, including a fully grown Alan (Robin Williams), who reunites with a traumatised Sarah (Bonnie Hunt) to complete the game and end its effects on their reality.
What the sequel nails is tone, with an enviable comic ensemble and a cheekier take on the source material, taking its lead from the 1990s animated series that spun off from this film and put characters into the jungle rather than bringing the jungle to the characters. What it lacks is the momentum and sense of carnage that comes from the original, even though Jumanji is less overtly comic than the more tongue-in-cheek follow-up.
When Jumanji first came out, it was hyped as a scary creature feature in the vein of Jurassic Park, with Robin Williams telling interviewers that he wouldn’t let his own young children go to see it. If you were the right age to be on the playground at the time, that made it a hot ticket. The film isn’t humourless, but it is played fairly straight as a fantasy adventure film.
Notably, Williams’ Alan isn’t funny as much as he is rattled, as anyone might be after more than two decades fending for himself in a magic jungle. Unlike in Steven Spielberg’s Hook (another film we’ve covered in The 90s On Netflix), that’s much better used here, as Williams plays another kid who grew up wrong. The film also borrows a traditional Peter Pan trope in having both Sam Parrish, Alan’s stern and upright father, and Van Pelt, the villainous big game hunter who is nemesis to the grown-up Alan, played by Jonathan Hyde. Spielberg’s film omitted that Mr. Darling/Captain Hook parallel, but it works marvellously here.
The device of jumping forwards after a 1960s-set prologue is to set up the movie’s most underrated aspect, which borrows a little from It’s A Wonderful Life. Alan argues with his father before playing the game, saying he never wants to see him again. In Capra-esque fashion, he gets his wish via a terrifying spell in the jungle, and then sees what became of his parents and his town when he wasn’t there. Even before the jungle arrives, the Brantford of the 1990s is blighted by economic depression, declining in the absence of the factory owner who died never knowing where his son went.
When you really think about it, that’s fairly heavy for a family movie and it shows the kind of tonal rollercoaster on which the film takes us. Dunst and Pierce are funny and lively as the two kids who get dragged into this mess and in the main, the comic relief comes from the CG menagerie that tramples all over the town. It’s a breathless film, capering between comedic asides and more horror-inspired action sequences.
From stampedes to earthquakes, there’s boundless imagination to the film’s set pieces, and some seriously brilliant production design to back it up. The digital effects are very much of this decade’s vintage, but that’s not to say there aren’t a couple of impressively scary practical sequences to complement them, such as Peter cowering in the footwell of a car being trampled by a (computerised) elephant.
The film captured the imaginations of its audience and remains a firm nostalgic favourite of its decade, but it was also a huge hit at the time. The film had a big budget for the time, but grossed $262m around the world. The movie currently in cinemas isn’t the first time that Sony attempted to make a sequel, but up until now, the aforementioned animated series and 2006’s Zathura, based on another book by Allsburg, were the only follow-ups that came to fruition.
Jumanji is an anarchic and adventurous film about overcoming fear, mixing in a few good scares with some prime 1990s silliness and more than a few awkward tonal shifts to memorable effect. It represents Williams’ most understated work for a family audience and that unexpectedly balances the convoluted wackiness of the premise. It’s hardly an untouchable classic, but the sequel’s thoughtful use of Easter eggs while pursuing a different tack shows due reverence for the original.
Jumanji is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription. It is also available on Sky Cinema. Don’t have Sky? You can also stream it on NOW, as part of an £11.99 NOW Cinema Membership subscription.