What to Watch: Stirring Nostalgia in ‘Jumanji’ (1995)
A look back to get ready for the upcoming remake.
Jumanji is a 1995 action/thriller about two kids who find and play a magical board game, releasing a man trapped for decades in it and a host of dangers that can only be stopped by finishing the game.
The recent announcement and new trailer for the upcoming remake of the 1995 children’s fantasy film, Jumanji, have met with, at best, mixed opinions. The controversy over one female’s wardrobe (or lack there of) is the stuff of internet dreams. Star Dwayne Johnson, whose just released Baywatch remake utterly failed to spark any positivity, is at it again, and while this seems like a better property to take a stab at, it too, like that bouncy beach romp, seems especially unnecessary.
Many feel the same, that the original film should not be touched, and while I don’t particularly disagree with this, I do find the reasons behind a remake not so inspiring. Nostalgia is not an untapped resource to be exploited. Nostalgia is a state of desire, a longing to return to perceived better times. Not actually go there. That aside, with the impending release of a big budget special effects Jumanji coming soon, now is as good a time as any to pop in that old DVD and check out the original once again. Now just where did I put that thing?
THE STORY: Directed by Joe Johnston, Jumanji begins with some genuine intrigue as a pair of young boys in the 1800s bury a small chest, hoping it will never be found. From just these few minutes, their story alone could have been a cool one. Either way, it remains untouched for a hundred years, when a bullied boy hears tribal drums at a construction site and unearths the box, finding inside an old board game called, well, you know, Jumanji. Along with a girl ‘friend’, he and she open the game and learn that it has a strange magical presence, which only gets worse when the boy actually gets sucked right into the game when he rolls the dice. She flees in panic, as anyone would, and doesn’t look back. No chance that will haunt her waking adult life. Oh wait, it does.
Flash forward another quarter century, and children Judy (Kirsten Dunst) and Peter Shepherd (Bradley Pierce) move into a nearby house with their Aunt and happen upon the game in the attic. Naturally, they begin to play and sure enough, weird things happen, including the appearance of large bugs, hordes of monkeys, lions, and stampedes. This ain’t Monopoly. Unless by some chance you play by house rules that include such things. Good for you. Either way, it also let’s loose a scruffy man named Alan (Robin Williams), who is actually the boy lost from years before, living within the jungles of the board game for more than 25 years. He’s a kind of short, hairy Tarzan. And he’s glad to be free but there are some issues. They eventually learn that they must find his old friend Sarah (Bonnie Hunt), the girl from before, to help finish the game to end the chaos that Jumanji has unleashed. Shouldn’t be a problem. Right? Right.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR: Sadly, and I think this will be the case for many, the film doesn’t quite hold up as well as most might remember. That’s the thing about nostalgia, the perceived idea that something was once better probably wasn’t. Things grow fonder as time passes, and for those who were raised in the 90s and had movies like Jumanji playing on their TVs for entertainment, the notion that is was great because it connects with their childhood makes perfect sense. We all thought Steve Urkell was cool once, too.
In reality, the movie is mostly a stream of fights and escapes and is a story based around the action rather than the other way around, with the burgeoning CGI visual effects taking showcase over the loosely-threaded plot. It’s an often bleak and joyless experience with some rather scary moments if you’re a little kid. Even at heart.
Still, there are some fun moments and the early sequence with young Alan, played by Adam Hann-Byrd, who audiences at the time remembered from his great work in Jodie Foster‘s exceptional Little Man Tate, help make the start so compelling. If only the film had told his story as well, it might have been stronger. Williams is appropriately wild and captures some of the rawness of his boy-like character (as he was always good at doing), but it’s Hunt who comes off best, her warm, what’s-really-happening? frazzleness the best performance in the film.
A GREAT MOMENT: So, given that film is really made for an audience older than it’s aimed at, Jumanji does at least have some moments that are exciting, which include a number of wild beasts, but the best and most innovative is one that involves quicksand, or maybe ‘quick-floor‘ if we are being technical and technical we are being.
As they all desperately play the game, struggling to end it, Peter has already become part monkey, a traumatizing bit of metamorphosis that is kind of disturbing. As mentioned, there are some scary bits, and when Alan rolls the dice and gets a warning that the ground on which they stand will turn to sand, the floorboards he is sitting on suddenly warble and give way, rippling out like water. Sarah leaps in and grabs him just as Judy plays forward and the sand (floor) hardens, leaving Alan and Sarah literally stuck in the planks. And that’s only half the battle as the next turn spawns, well, a mess of cat-sized spiders. It’s terrifying fun and a great visual sequence that for the time, was (and still is) the coolest part of the movie.
What’s even better about it is how it kinda becomes metaphorical as well as Alan and Sarah are now locked in a face-to-face position that allows for a small moment when they can finally declare long lost feelings. It’s a rare bit of quiet in a film that runs on overload, giving it some much-needed humanity.
THE TALLY: Jumanji is a cult favorite that has legions of fans, and rightfully so. It’s a perfect fit for such a description, a dark, often cynical tale with a lot of undertones that allow for personal interpretation and as such, a personal experience. Some found inspiration for imagination, and yet most keep it tucked away as a memory that grows fonder as time passes, a curse of nostalgia. Watching it again, it has lost a lot of it spark and feels a little hollow in spots with a thin story and some tonal ups and down, but the good thing about nostalgia is that it tends to shine a little favor on all things in the past and if you are one that remembers Jumanji well, mostly likely watching it again will stir these memories and keep this one to cherish.