Jumanji (United States, 1995)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Apparently, the producers of Jumanji wanted this film to be a Jurassic Park for 1995's holiday season. If so, it's a badly misplaced, and ultimately futile, hope. For, although no one would suspect Steven Spielberg's 1993 dino-picture of having a plot worthy of great literature, at least it had a storyline -- something this film is lacking. Jumanji takes approximately one-hundred minutes for four people to play a board game. The result isn't much more fun or involving than watching a few friends play Monopoly. Even the Robin Williams manic humor can't save Jumanji, at least not entirely.

The film's biggest claim to fame are its special effects. Unfortunately, they don't look as impressive in extended scenes on the big screen as they do in short clips on TV. In fact, there are times when the sequences of charging rhinos, elephants, and zebras look downright cheesy. The monkeys certainly aren't convincing and the Little Shop of Horrors Audrey II-type man-eating plant would have been more effective had it broken into a song. ("Feed Me"?) Jurassic Park showed how amazing computer-generated creatures can be when properly handled; Jumanji shows what happens when less care is given to the technology.

The film opens with a brief segment in 1869, where two children furtively take a board game called Jumanji into the dark depths of a forest, where they bury it, uttering a quick prayer for the soul of whoever digs it up. Switch to Brantford, New Hampshire in 1969, where with a boy named Alan Parrish is getting ready to run away from home. Before he leaves, however, he decides to play one round of a game -- called Jumanji -- that he recently found near his father's work site. So, along with his friend Sarah, he sets up the board, rolls the dice, then gets sucked out of this world into some dark elsewhere.

Twenty-six years later, Judy (Kirsten Dunst) and Peter (Bradley Pierce) move into Alan's old house. They find the Jumanji game and start to play. Judy goes first, and her move causes surprise, real-life appearances by lions and monkeys. Then, when it's Peter's turn, Alan mysteriously re-appears, much older and looking suspiciously like Robin Williams with a lot of excess facial hair. A grown-up Sarah (Bonnie Hunt) soon joins the trio, so all the players are assembled. From then on, it's a race to finish the game before rampaging safari rejects destroy Brantford.

The movie goes something like this: someone makes a move, then the characters spend the next ten minutes running away from whatever animals they unleash. Then it's the next player's turn. And so on... until the game (and the movie) ends. Jumanji comes across more as a blueprint for some deluxe amusement park ride than a legitimate film. It's a pointless trek. The "adventure" is repetitive, he thrills are brief, and the moments of character-building drama are effete. Only the comedy works, but there's not enough of it to justify an entire motion picture.

This is the kind of embarrassing dud that results when Hollywood places special effects and a neat concept over a well-told story. The children's book Jumanji, written by Chris Van Allsburg, makes for good reading for a young audience, but it's hardly the sort of material upon which to base a major motion picture. The men and women behind Jumanji didn't just lose a turn; they lost their way.

Jumanji (United States, 1995)

Run Time: 1:40
U.S. Release Date: 1995-12-15
MPAA Rating: "PG"
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1