Back in August of 2019, when I looked at Robin Williams movies to commemorate the 5th anniversary of his death, the hardest movie to leave out was Jumanji. I’m not saying it’s a masterpiece. It’s also not my favourite Robin Williams movie. But it’s still a fairly good movie that I feel a lot of nostalgia for.
Jumanji is based on a picture book of the same name by Chris Van Allsburg. Some of his other books include Zathura (I’ll be looking at that movie adaptation next week), The Polar Express, The Wretched Stone, and his most recent picture book, Queen of the Falls. He was also involved in Disney’s The Little Mermaid as a visual artist, the film adaptation of The Polar Express, 2003’s How To Deal, and was a producer for the Zathura film adaptation. Jumanji in particular is one of his two Caldecott Medal winners, the other being The Polar Express. His first book, The Garden of Abdul Gasuzi, was a runner-up for the medal.
The film’s beginnings started when Peter Guber, then CEO of Columbia Pictures, invited Allsburg to option his book while visiting Boston. Allsburg wrote a screenplay draft, which he described as “sort of trying to imbue the story with a quality of mystery and surrealism.” TriStar Pictures agreed to finance the film on the condition that Robin Williams played the starring role of Alan Parrish.
Williams actually turned down the role based on the first script he was given. He only accepted the lead role after director Joe Johnson, and screenwriters Jonathan Hensleigh, Greg Taylor and Jim Strain undertook major rewrites. Johnston actually had reservations over Williams because of his reputation of improvising his lines. Williams didn’t have a problem with sticking to the script however, realizing it was a tightly structured story. He was allowed to improvise on later takes with Bonnie Hunt (his co-star), but he always completed at least a few takes sticking strictly to the script.
In-between Williams turning down the role and later accepting it, a number of other actors were considered for Alan Perish. Tom Hanks was the first of them. Others included Dan Aykroyd, Bruce Willis, Michael Keaton, Kevin Kline, Michael Douglas, Harrison Ford, Sean Connery, and even Arnold Schwarzenegger. Yeah, this would be a very different movie with Schwarzenegger in the lead role. Willis specifically wasn’t available, as he was focusing on Die Hard with a Vengeance at the time.
Bonnie Hunt plays Sarah Whittle, with Laura Bell Bundy in one of her early roles as young Sarah. Adam Hann-Byrd portrays young Alan on that note. Kristen Dunst plays Judy Shepard in her breakout role, although it’s worth noting she had a major supporting role in Interview with the Vampire the year before. She would later move on to play Mary Jane in the first Spider-Man film trilogy, plenty of other film and TV appearances, and also enjoys a successful singing career. Bradley Pierce plays Judy’s younger brother Peter. Some of his other appearances include Chip in Beauty and the Beast and as an early voice for Tails in the Sonic the Hedgehog franchise. He generally works more as a cinematographer these days, but still makes the occasional acting appearance. Kristy Alley was at one point considered for Sarah Whittle, while Scarlett Johansson auditioned for Judy Shepard.
There’s also David Alan Grier, who plays police officer Carl – he’s generally known more for TV and theater, but still makes regular film appearances. Jonathan Hyde plays the dual role of Alan’s father Sam Parrish and Van Pelt, who serves as the movie’s main antagonist. Last but not least, Babe Neuwirth plays Nora Shepard, Judy and Peter’s aunt. People tend to know her best for playing Lilith in Cheers and Frasier, but she’s also known for her Broadway musical performances in multiple Chicago revivals, The Addams Family, and a number of TV and film appearances.
Most of the filming took place throughout the New England region of the United States, mostly in Keene, New Hampshire, which represented the fictional town of Brantford, New Hampshire. The Old Woolen Mill in North Berwick, Maine, served as the set for the Parrish Shoe Factory. It was actually the first time anyone used the building since the mill closed in 1955, and it’s since been renovated and is currently used as a senior housing site. It also happens to be the first property to be awarded a tax credit under the Maine State Historic Rehabilitation Tax Credit Act of 2008. Some additional filming took place in Vancouver, Canada, featuring a mock-up of the Parrish house. The house never actually existed as far as my research can tell, but the house standing there now is among the most expensive properties in Vancouver. That’s saying a lot considering their massive house pricing bubble.
The special effect blend traditional techniques, including animatronics and puppetry, with some brand new digital effects handled by Industrial Light & Magic. IL&M developed two new software programs for the film. One is called iSculpt, which helped them create realistic facial expressions on the CGI animals in the film. The other creates realistic digital hair for the monkeys and the lion. It’s worth noting that the film is dedicated to Stephen L. Price, the visual effects supervisor who died before the film’s release.
Jumanji released in December of 1995, and ended up earning $262.8 million on a $65 million budget. It’s since done quite well on home video, with multiple DVD releases, including a special DVD bundle in the UK bundled with the Jumanji board game. To coincide with the Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle in 2017, they released the 4K Blu-ray version, which happens to be the version I watched for this review.
Despite its success, Jumanji received mediocre reviews from the critics. It’s got an approval rating of 55% on Rotten Tomatoes, with an average score of 5.7/10. Roger Ebert gave it 1.5 out of 4 stars, complaining about its reliance on special effects, the story, and questioned giving the movie a PG rating when he felt it was too scary for younger children. Specifically, he said that Jumanji is “about as appropriate for smaller children as, say, Jaws.” Allsburg on the other hand praised the film, despite the changes made from the book. “The film is faithful in reproducing the chaos level that comes with having a jungle animal in the house. It’s a good movie.” Audience scores on CinemaScore are much more positive, giving the movie an average rating of A-.
As for myself, I enjoyed this movie back when I first saw it as a kid, and I enjoy it just as much now. The story is fairly straight forward. It’s about a group of four people, each with their own psychological issues, playing a magical board game in which every turn brings out a new jungle themed threat. If they finish the game it all goes away, but with each passing turn, the situation gets more dangerous. These threats end up destroying what’s left of a town that’s already a shell of its former self, specifically the mansion that once housed the established Parrish family, but fell into ruin after Alan disappeared.
Of all the kids’ movies Williams performed in, this is probably his least comedic, but that’s not a bad thing. He plays a character who got sucked into a magical board game for 26 years, never truly got the chance to grow up, and he plays that well. You believe he’s somewhere between a kid in an adult’s body, an experienced survivalist, and someone dealing with a lot of trauma. He puts in a well ranged dramatic performance, from running around with a childlike glee when he finally returns home, to convincing fear when his roll of the dice brings out Van Pelt, a skilled hunter specifically gunning for whoever brought him out of the game.
Hunt’s performance as Sarah is equally good, convincingly portraying someone who witnessed Alan’s disappearance, and was severely traumatized by the event. The two of them play off each other quite well, from the arguments they have after Alan tricks Sarah into rolling the dice again, to the romance they develop as their adventure goes on – even if Alan isn’t quite mature enough to realize it.
Dunst, who would have been 12 or 13 at the time of filming, has a real breakout role in her performance here. She and her in-movie brother have their own traumatic experience, with their parents dying while on vacation. Judy becomes a habitual liar, sometimes just for laughs, but she’s also convincing as a bit of a leader for the group who is wise beyond her years. Pierce is also good as Peter, although I wouldn’t say he’s a standout.
Hyde is brilliant as both Sam Parrish and Van Pelt. As Sam, he comes across as cold and stuffy at first, as if he’s obsessed with being dignified and manly, but he’s not without his soft side. As Van Pelt, he’s entertainingly determined, angry when appropriate, and his sneer is a real scene stealer. Yet despite the character’s simple entertainment value, there’s actually a lot of depth to the character being played as the same actor as Alan’s father. You could analyze it in so many ways, be it about Alan’s reluctance to accept adulthood and responsibilities, hence the line “coming ready or not”, or simply about Alan being afraid that he’s too much like his father.
The movie’s story is darker than normal for a kids’ movie, but that makes it more compelling if anything. As a kid I didn’t notice the movie’s exploration of trauma and mostly focused on the adventure aspect of the movie. Despite Ebert saying it’s too scary for younger kids, I know my youngest brother saw it when he was about 5, and he was fine. But as an adult, the darker themes deepen the movie beyond a simple adventure flick. And of course the themes of growing up and facing what you’re afraid of works for everyone, not just kids.
For the most part, the visuals have aged quite well. The movie relies on practical effects whenever possible, like the animatronics used for the moving plants, the crocodiles and probably even some of the giant bugs. The CGI is mostly used sparingly, but it’s quite convincing on the lion. The monkeys are really the only visual effect that look weird by today’s standards. Then again, I’m pretty sure they weren’t supposed to look realistic to begin with.
The soundtrack by the late James Horner is very memorable as well. It fully embraces the adventurous nature of the movie. It sounds epic for the big moments, like the stampede, the climax, and the movies’ most dangerous moments, but it also works for the quiet, more dramatic moments. He also composed the soundtrack for Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, James Cameron’s Titanic, James Cameron’s Avatar, and Apollo 13 – all great soundtracks in their own right.
It’s probably best not to drag this review on too much longer. It’s a well-known movie that a lot of people around my age have seen, and for those who haven’t, it’s best left unspoiled. Despite how Williams intentionally doesn’t bring a lot of comedy in this movie, there are still some great laughs – just mostly from the Carl character or situational comedy.
Jumanji is an easy recommendation. It’s a fun fantasy film with some fairly mature themes, yet it’s still appropriate for most kids at 6 or older. The performances are strong all-round. The music enhances the movie on almost every level. In a lot of ways the movie feels timeless. It may be a bit too dark for some peoples’ tastes, and that’s why I wouldn’t recommend it for younger kids – even if my 5-year-old brother was fine.
Next up is Zathura, and then there are the two soft reboot movies, Welcome to the Jungle and The Next Level. Next month I’m planning on a Ridley Scott theme month. I haven’t yet decided what’s next after that, but it’s between looking at all the Fantastic Four movies, rewatching a handful of Disney Animation Studios movies that I watched for the first time during my 2017 Disney movie series (and I could throw their 60th movie in there for good measure), and so bad it’s good month.