Jumanji, in the film of the same name, is a magical board game in which each roll of the dice conjures up some new terror from the Jungian jungle of childhood imagination. Once you have commenced play on the seductive-looking board, you must continue to the end, despite the attempts of shrieking monkeys, snarling lions, carnivorous plants with tentacle vines, mosquitoes the size of balsa-wood fliers and a variety of other Edgar Rice Burroughsesque horrors to distract you. These include a psychotic big-game hunter (Jonathan Hyde) with an old-fashioned elephant gun.
Jumanji, the film, is based on a children's book by Chris Van Allsburg. It begins in 1969, when the game is unearthed by a rich boy (Adam Hann-Byrd) at a construction site. He persuades a girl (Laura Bell Bundy) to play it with him, and a roll of the dice sucks him into the board, while the next sends a flock of bats after his playmate. The vanished boy is presumed murdered by his disapproving dad, and the girl's story is dismissed by all--including, eventually, the girl herself--as a hysterical delusion.
The scene shifts to the present day. A girl (Kirsten Dunst) and a boy (Bradley Pierce) move into the long-empty mansion, find the game and inadvertently join it. The lost boy returns, now a full-grown, shaggy jungle man (Robin Williams). He and the two kids find his grown-up friend (the delightful Bonnie Hunt) from back when, and the game is resumed in order to end its curse.
But before the final space on the board is reached and the winner can cry "jumanji," all manner of wild beasts are liberated from the jungle within the board, wreaking havoc all over the little New Hampshire town where this takes place.
This havoc is the real reason for the movie's existence: the sight of great herds of wild animals stampeding down the streets of an archetypal American small town. For the most part, Jumanji really delivers in these sequences.
The animals aren't played by animal actors, but are animated by a computer process similar to that used in Jurassic Park. But this time, the illusion of 3-D solidity isn't so seamless; the critters have a lot of personality, but they also have a touch of painterly stylization.
They look, in fact, much like pictures from a children's book come to life, and this appears to be deliberate. As with Ray Harryhausen's stop-motion animated mythological fantasies (The 7th Voyage of Sinbad is the best of them), the faintly unreal look of the special effects is part of their charm.
Another current computer-animated feature, Disney's Toy Story, is pleasing because, although the film technically amazes, it's not soulless. The characterizations are remarkably full and vivid, and the sweet tone is craftily cut with a few touches that border on the truly macabre--a little bit of Hieronymous Bosch is mixed in with the Fisher-Price to ensure that the film doesn't become cloying.
Jumanji uses the same techniques in reverse: Its animated beasties are, on purpose, a little flat and soulless and cliched, and this is what makes them scary.
Directed by Joe Johnston (Honey, I Shrunk the Kids), Jumanji is agreeable enough to watch, but it's cheated of the chance to be a horror-fantasy classic by its own marketing. It's aimed at kids, so the fear that the Jumanji board will cause any death or other such dire consequences is kept safely at bay. Thus, some of the sense of awe also is missing.
There's a potentially great shot toward the end--a tentacle reaching unexpectedly for a police car--but, because we know the man inside isn't in any real danger from these filmmakers, it doesn't have the shock value that it should. Jumanji's wild things are a little tamer than we might wish them.
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Also, the film flirts with an uneasy subtext. Like George Bailey in It's a Wonderful Life, to which Jumanji is surprisingly indebted, Williams gets a vision of what happens to his hometown when he withdraws from life: His dad's shoe factory closes; and, before long (albeit for supernatural reasons), the streets are filled with rioting and the stores with looting.
Williams' father is presented as a cold villain, yet the boy, for not wanting the life his father has planned for him, is seen as a prodigal son. Without much stretching, one can find a reactionary message in Jumanji: Do what you're told, and ignore your own heart and head. It's a jungle in there.
Directed by Joe Johnston; with Robin Williams, Bonnie Hunt, Kirsten Dunst, Bradley Pierce, David Alan Grier, Jonathan Hyde, Bebe Neuwirth, Adam Hann Byrd, Laura Bell Bundy and Patricia Clarkson.