November 17, 2011 by abbyo
If I can sum up my memories about movies in the 90s in two words, it would be special effects. This decade was an industrial revolution for computer graphics in film. Not only were movies making new advances left and right, there was all kinds of media attention devoted to what was being developed, and how it worked. Museum exhibits, TV specials, massive magazine articles—you name it. And studios were eager to find ways to showcase their new tricks, too. Movies like Armageddon, Jurassic Park and today’s pick, “Jumanji,” got fanfare that was unlike the blockbusters we get now, like “The Day After Tomorrow” or “Transformers,” because the things being done were so novel. Green Screens, animatronic/CGI creature hybrids…It literally felt like you could do anything. And goodness knows that folks tried.
“Jumanji” is actually a nice little capsule of 90s cinema culture in a variety of ways. Not only was it a hulking example of then-cutting-edge computer work—and not to mention based on a well-regarded children’s book by Chris Van Allsburg— it also utilized the talents of a lot of “it” actors of the time, including Bonnie Hunt, Kirsten Dunst and (of course) Robin Williams. I’ve been trying to come to terms with Williams’ place in the culture lately, given that his popularity is nowhere near what it used to be. He’s the kind of comic/actor whose wild, frenetic antics appeal very much to small children who aren’t yet familiar with the term “annoying” and what kind of behavior the term includes. The man’s presence can make a bad film worse (see: any of Nathan Rabin’s “My Year of Flops” entries involving Williams—there are many), but it can also take a mediocre movie to higher standing simply based on his entertaining performance (see: Mrs. Doubtfire). It’s a fine line; one I really hoped wouldn’t mess up my fond memories of this particular entry into the nostalgia canon.
Fortunately, it’s not all that bad here, and not even my retrospective irritation with the lead actor could make me hate this movie. It’s just too much fun. Sure, part of me wants to get on my critical high horse and decry the movie’s total disregard for Van Allsburg’s spare, brilliant book, but really, what kind of movie would that have made? Not one that 7-year-old Abby would have wanted to see (or 7-year-old anyone, for that matter). That being said, I recall that upon first viewing, this movie freaked the heck out of second grade me, and it actually took a couple of years before I was able to settle into “Jumanji” and enjoy it for what it was. Once I did, it was automatically cemented in my pantheon. It could not be moved.
There’s plenty here to trouble young minds. For example:
-Life-threatening situations (including a really strange one where the floor becomes quicksand)
-This fella’s facial hair:
“Jumanji” is a jungle-themed board game from hell, in which the players roll dice, move pieces, and are given various situations on each turn with which they must cope. But, unlike your average board game, this game brings the creatures/natural forces it describes to startling life. This proves to be a problem for young Alan Parrish in 1969, when he’s stuck in the Jungle on his turn (the game’s equivalent of “Candy Land’s” Molasses Swamp). He’s sucked into the game, much to the fright of his playing companion, Sarah, who doesn’t roll the dice and help her friend, but instead is attacked by a flock of bats and runs screaming from the house. Years later, in 1995, two precocious orphan siblings (Kirsten Dunst and Bradley Pierce) move into the old Parrish place and discover the game in their attic. They unwittingly resume the game Alan and Sarah started, freeing the now adult Alan (Williams) from his tropical forest purgatory, and tracking down the grown Sarah (Hunt) to aid in their quest to fix the hell the game has unleashed on their lives.
While there are plenty of neat things about the movie and its scads of creature effects (man-eating vines for one, a giant lion for another), what I loved the most was how Alan looks when he first emerges from the jungle:
Take a gander. The movie wants us to believe that’s 25 years of facial hair on Williams’ noggin. Obviously, the filmmakers had never actually seen Robin Williams before. The man is a fur-bearing creature. I’m pretty sure this is what he’d look like after No-Shave November, never mind 25 years without a shaving implement.
And speaking of those special effects: They’re pretty dated, but that’s a given when you’re working with a movie that was made in 1995. Not to mention that the lion the filmmakers were so proud of did not look much like a real lion. But you know what? “Jumanji” goes the whole hog with it, which I kind of appreciate. And while a stampede of CGI wild animals may not look terribly convincing, the idea is really fun.
That’s the joy of “Jumanji.” It’s not that it’s a great movie (it’s not) or that there’s anything particularly remarkable about it (there isn’t). It’s that it’s a movie that manages to embody just about every imaginative game of pretend I played as a child. It’s like a game my friends and I would have made up, come to exciting, high-stakes life. Even if it is pure goofy cinema cheese, it’s pure goofy cinema cheese that exemplified all of the best parts of my childhood. I can’t fault it for that.
I don’t know how I never noticed this before, but seeing David Alan Grier in this movie finally made me realize how annoying I find him.
One bit of dated political incorrectness: at one point Van Pelt, the movie’s nasty hunter, re-ups his ammo at a gun shop. Because his gun is outdated, he’s got to buy a new one. Obtaining the new firearm is ridiculously easy. The store owner gives him background check forms to fill out, but recants when Van Pelt presents him with a handful of gold coins. In 1995, stuff like this was played for laughs. After 1999, no way. What a difference four years makes.