Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Thrills, Chills, and Spills: JUMANJI

by JB
Would this “children’s film” live up to my memories of it from decades ago? Would the new 4K Blu-ray live up to my HD and HDR expectations?

Jumanji is a beloved film, and I have warm memories of the first time I saw it with my young son during its original 1995 theatrical release. I faced a re-watch with minor trepidation and angst. What if it doesn’t hold up? What of the dreaded “Goonies Derivation?” Jumanji’s then-groundbreaking use of CGI is now twenty years old; what if it now looks quaint and creaky? I have never been the biggest fan of Robin Williams; what if this is another of his “chicken-in-a-blender performances?

I need not have worried.
The Plot in Brief: Young Alan Parrish (Adam Hann-Byrd) finds a mysterious game, “Jumanji,” buried in an excavation that is part of his father’s shoe factory expansion. That night, he plays the game with his friend Sarah (Laura Bell Bundy). The game turns out to be magical and sucks Alan into its jungle world. Also, a bunch of bats fly out! Cool.

Twenty-six years later, Nora Shephard (Bebe Neuwirth) purchases the Parrish house and moves in, accompanied by her recently orphaned niece and nephew, Judy and Peter (Kirsten Dunst and Bradley Pierce). Judy and Peter find the “Jumanji” game in the attic and start to play. Almost immediately, the now adult Alan Parrish (Robin Williams) is freed from the game. The game also unleashes a swarm of giant mosquitos, a ferocious lion, and ten crazed monkeys. Can Alan and the children finish the game and make all of its terrible consequences go away? Can finishing the game get any more complicated?
I had forgotten how much seriousness and sadness this film contains. The prologue wherein two brothers dispose of the game in 1869 is straight out of a gothic horror film. We start with the young Alan Parrish being bullied and not being able to talk about it with his difficult, distant father… and THEN he is forced to spend 26 years alone in the jungle. The effects of first playing the game sends Sarah to decades of psychotherapy. We meet Judy and Peter soon after they have lost their parents in an automobile accident. The joy and exhilaration in this film springs from an impossible well of loss and sadness. But, like all great Disney films, Jumanji knows that for the wonderful and sweet stuff to be… well, wonderful and sweet, the sad and terrifying stuff has got to be genuinely sad and terrifying.

Jumanji holds up wonderfully well. I was engaged. I laughed. I was moved by all of the father/son material. While the CGI does look a bit dated, it did not bother me because the CGI was highly stylized to begin with—all of the CGI creatures look like illustrations from a children’s book brought to life. Plus, the film features many impressive practical effects, from the monsoon that overtakes the dining room to the creepy spiders set loose in the attic. I enjoyed the mix of special effects methods, and I wished more films would use this production model.
Given that I am on record as being no fan of the man’s work, Jumanji might contain my favorite Robin Williams performance. Gone is the manic smarm of Williams in Dead Poets Society, Patch Adams, and Good Morning, Vietnam. Here, he undersells everything, but never becomes the uber-sincere low talker we find in films like Good Will Hunting and Awakenings. (Another of my top Williams performances: his turn as Dr. Cozy Carlisle in Dead Again.)

Indeed, all of the performances in Jumanji are wonderful and spot-on: David Alan Grier is very funny as a frustrated cop; and Bonnie Hunt has never been better than as her grown-up, mixed-up Sarah. Kirsten Dunst gives a terrific child performance, and Bradley Pierce, as her brother, grows a tail. The filmmakers also had the inspired idea of having Jonathan Hyde play a dual role: Alan’s distant father and the psychopathic big-game hunter, Van Pelt.
The new 4K transfer of Jumanji is… variable, which I am finding in more and more of these new 4K discs. It might be the source materials. It might be an indifferent transfer. There are shots and sequences on the new disc (the outdoor sequences of Van Pelt hunting, for example) that are beautiful, sharp, and stunningly pristine. Other scenes are indistinguishable from the old Blu-ray transfer. It could be my tired, old 2K eyeballs.

TANGENT: Last week I attended a theatrical screening of It’s A Wonderful Life. (It’s a wonderful film.) I’m guessing it was because that film is rated G that the audience was treated to endless trailers for upcoming children’s films, each one worse than the last. Every single trailer featured flatulence gags because I guess cartoony farts are an easy laugh among the 4-8 year old demographic. There is a scene in the upcoming Sherlock Gnomes film (I’m not making this up) where a little garden gnome falls into a bucket of water and farts and farts and farts. It made me sad. Don’t we owe more to our children than this? Shouldn’t we demand our best artists be tasked with crafting children’s entertainment? We want our children to be challenged and delighted, not snickering at toot-toots.
Jumanji represents the best in children’s entertainment because in the midst of being thrilled and chilled, the audience is asked to grapple with some important questions. What is the nature of friendship? What is the nature of sadness and loss? What is the nature of courage? No one farts, at least not on camera. Jumanji loves kids—and adults—enough to make them laugh, make them jump, and make them think.

Official Jumanji Thrill-O-Meter Reading: 93%

Thrills: 100%
(The film is full of exciting adventures: man-eating plants, ferocious lions, monsoons, and crazed NRA advocates)

Chills: 90%
(Giant, stinging insects, spiders the size of pigs, and Alan’s terrifying monologue about what the jungle is really like…)

Spills: 90%
(Practical effects, a laundry list of stunt men in the end credits, a baby rhino who just can’t keep up with his stampede, and a police car that is eaten by a bush)

On a completely unrelated note, this marks my 300th weekly column. Though our Grand Poo-Bah Patrick Bromley constantly exhorts me to “stop counting,” I count. Not including “one offs,” contributions to group columns, eulogies etc., I have now been writing one column or another for F This Movie! for more than six years. Although I am no fan of the weekly grind, I can honestly say I love writing about movies for the audience that Patrick and Company have assembled here. I would also like to thank my lovely wife Jan who, by my count, has now devoted a full 12 days of her life to copy-editing these winsome screeds. It is my wish to continue writing in this capacity for a very long time. You will remove me from the theater only when you pry my cold, dead hands from the sticky armrests.


  1. I've always loved Jumanji and am glad to hear it holds up!

    That Sherlock Gnomes trailer has to be seen to be believed. It is shockingly awful. Also, we're still casting Johnny Depp in children's films? Really???

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Congratulations on the milestone, JB!

  4. Congratulations, JB, and thank you for the insight. I sincerely appreciate and enjoy your contributions.

  5. Congrats on the milestone! Your column made me almost buy the blu ray tonight. Curious what you'll think of the sequel. I dug it.

    1. yeah, the sequel was surprisingly not bad, and actually fun. thanks to jack black and dwayne johnson