Movie Review – Jumanji
Director : Joe Johnston
Year Of Release : 1995
Principal Cast : Robin Williams, Bonnie Hunt, Kirsten Dunst, Bradley Pierce, David Alan Grier, Jonathan Hyde, Bebe Neuwirth, Adam Hann-Byrd, Malcolm Stewart, Patricia Clarkson, Laura Bell Bundy.
Approx Running Time : 104 Minutes
Synopsis: When two kids find and play a magical board game, they release a man trapped for decades in it and a host of dangers that can only be stopped by finishing the game.
Following the “birth” of modern Cg visual effects in 1993’s Jurassic Park (and to an extent Terminator 2 the year before), the mid-90’s saw a boom crash opera of computerised visual effects supplanting traditional film-making techniques, often to the detriment of the film. Jumanji, released in the middle of our white-hot fascination with the then-nascent digital artform, has not aged terribly well, no sir. In terms of its story and characters, sure, the film remains an enjoyable romp and a largely monotonous essaying of Robin Williams’ less obnoxious personalities, but with its over-use of digital effects through the film’s effect-heavy latter half the movie kinda crumbles into a pixel-laden heap.
Robin Williams plays an adult Alan Parrish, who as a young boy (Adam Hann-Byrd) is sucked into a magical board game discovered in the newly dug foundations of his father’s company back in the 60’s. When two young children arrive at his family home to live, they accidentally release Parrish into modern day, alongside the animals and dangers of the game, Jumanji. Only by completing the game begun by Parrish all those years ago can Judy (Kirsten Dunst), Peter (Bradley Pierce) and Alan’s young friend Sarah Whittle (Bonnie Hunt) put a stop to the mounting destruction.
Jumanji is one of three film adaptations of the books of author Chris Van Allsburg, the other two being Zathura and Robert Zemeckis’ The Polar Express. Jumanji was Von Allsburg’s second published work, in 1981, and has remained a perennial favorite of children around the world since – it was only natural, I guess, that Hollywood would come calling to turn it into a film. Directed by Spielberg protege Joe Johnston from a screenplay by Greg Taylor, Jonathan Hensleigh and Jim Strain, Jumanji is an exceptionally sweet-natured fantasy adventure film that taps into the childhood in all of us – it’s a variant of the Goonies-slash-Explorers motif of innocence lost and children transitioning into adulthood via shared experience, only in this instance it’s shellacked by a smorgasbord of CG and terrific production design.
At the time I first watched Jumanji I was utterly swept up in Alan Parrish’s adventures in both the 1960’s and “present day”, what with the magical board game spewing forth its assortment of creepies and crawlies – from pernicious monkeys and table-dwelling lions, to giant spiders and the inevitable deluge of elephants, rhinoceros and hippos as the jungle is unleashed upon the small town of Brantford, New Hampshire. The cinematic viewing in 1995 was, unfortunately, nothing compared to my recent revisit to the film on DVD [sidebar: Jumanji was one of the first DVD’s released in Australia, coming complete with the soon-to-wither-and-die MPEG audio codec, a 5.1 codec that most modern systems will fail to decode!] after many years idle on the shelf; Jumanji is not a film that’s aged well at all. I mean… at. all. A product of its time, the film’s antiquated CG rendering and overuse of green screen has dated it badly, terribly even, and aside from being a curiosity among the fans who want to revisit a mid-Robin Williams there’s little to recommend it beyond a cheap babysitting tool when Netflix goes offline.
That’s not to say Jumanji isn’t without it’s strong points. Robin Williams’ effusive personality shines through in an entirely monochromatic performance as Alan Parrish, whose resentment of being trapped inside the game for forty years bubbles away beneath the surface of his joy at being back. Kirsten Dunst is porcelain-like as Judy, a strong-willed yet fragile (?) girl who doesn’t like being in a new place away from her friends. Then there’s Peter, played by Bradley Pierce, who gets one of the film’s biggest laughs in a fourth-wall-breaking moment of comedy that (if I recall correctly) brought the house down in the cinema, but not so much now. Jonathan Hyde pulls double duty as the younger Alan’s crusty dictatorial father, as well as the game’s resident safari hunter Van Pelt (a personification of Alan’s troubled relationship with his father) who persues Alan throughout the game, and the movie. Bonnie Hunt, as Alan’s poor potential girlfriend is also a hoot, with Hunt’s sardonic performance as winning as the film allows.
From a live-action standpoint Jumanji certainly ticks all the boxes. Alan’s house comes apart literally at the seams as it slowly succumbs to becoming a jungle throughout the film’s journey towards completion, and the film spares no expense achieving this effect as vines, flowers and rivers take hold of every nook and cranny. The broader scale effects, such as a giant animal stampede through the town itself, are less reliably achieved through CG, a miasma of misplaced pixels and poorly rendered (state-of-the-art-1994) computer avatars representing well known jungle and savannah animals that draws laughs now not for what they do, so much as how bad they look. Most of the obvious CG now looks awful, but there’s some redemption to be found in the practical effects on display – the lion, in particular, still looks stunning, while the giant spiders are creepy as f@ck – but they’re overridden by the copious over-use of CG when sparing it might have made for a better end result.
Jumanji retains it’s 90’s charm for the majority of its running time through sheer energetic audacity and the cast’s willingness to go along with the insanity of the plot. Although a product of its time in every possible worst way, there’s enough zany adventure to be mined here that it’s no longer a total loss. Fun, bright, and featuring a solid cast delivering well above the genre’s expectations, Jumanji is a faulty, flimsy roller-coaster ride that will deliver minor thrills among the flat-footed misfortune.
10 thoughts on “Movie Review – Jumanji”
"a pixel-laden heap." That pretty much says it all. I watched a few minutes of it on TV a couple years ago and couldn't get over how awful it looked. It just took me completely out of the film and I didn't bother to finish. I did watch it in its entirety way back when it first hit home video. I liked it, but didn't love it because even then the visuals were a bit shaky. I liked the story, though, and had a good time watching it. I loathed Zathura because it felt like a lame remake of Jumanji. The Polar Express…meh.
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Were it not for the shoddy effects, this one would have been a bona fide classic, rather than a wannabe…
Love this film and I always will because of Robin Williams and my childhood love of it but I agree, I saw this last when Williams died and the effects really are awful.
Yeah, I watched this soon after RW died. I enjoyed his role but the film had some awful CG.
Is it fair to say this movie is bad because the CGI isn't up to par, even though it's over 20 years old? I mean, you wouldn't say The Phantom Menace is better than A New Hope because the fight choreography is better in the former than the latter, would you? I guess I can't understand this as a legitimate critique, unless of course the CGI was remarkable worse than everything else in its time period.
Okay, so I get what you're saying, but here's my theory.
Jumanji came out in 1995, two years after Jurassic Park (a film where the CG effects have barely dated a day, even now), and about twelve months before stuff like Independence Day etc came along. A film selling the majority of its actions on whizz-bang effects should consider ensuring that the CG they employ is going to stand up in years to come.
Compare the first Toy Story film with the third – separated by what, fifteen years or so of advancement in computer graphics – and aside from the respresentation of the human form (look at Sid in the original, a character that's barely recognizeable these days) there's actually not that much different overall, aside from better shading, textures and detail.
Even similarly aged films of the era, such as DragonHeart (also by Universal) still stand up with their use of visual effects. It's not so much that these films use them, but that they use them well, and ensure that even ten, fifteen, twenty years on, they still look at least competent within the tone, visual aesthetic and overall feeling of the film.
Jumanji doesn't want for production value on anything else other than its CG. By going all out with set design, action sequences and visual effect requirements, the lack of quality CG is stark compared to films of a similar vintage. I'm not saying the film is bad, but I'm saying the fact the film's effects have dated sooooo badly reduces my enjoyment factor considerably.
You mention A New Hope and The Phantom Menace by way of comparison. You're right, I'd never compare either film to the other in terms of being a product of their time, but there's a reason ANH remains one of the best Star Wars films alongside TPM being considered one of the worst. And it's not to do with fights or choreography or anything like that. It's to do with characters and story – and you know my thoughts on TPM at this point. Jumanji has great characters and a cool little adventure story – but they're let down by shoddy effects that do not hold up well enough under today's full blown HD resolution. That's not to say they should be perfect, but considering how well other films of the mid-90's still hold up in spite of their age, this is dissatisfying to say the least.
I see, thanks for clarifying all that. I guess I have no choice but to agree with you. 😉
I tend to agree with Brikhaus. I remember seeing it on VHS after its initial run and not being shocked by bad CGI. It may not be the most cutting edge, but when comparing the heart, story and acting talent of this film to 'Goosebumps', I'm not sure I'd come up with the same score for both.
You're right about Jumanji, it has way more heart and soul than Goosebumps; my memory of the film is perhaps a whole load better than my revisit to it, so perhaps that's coloured my review of it a bit.