“A game for those who seek to find/A way to leave their world behind”
If you grew up in the ‘90s, chances are you went to see – and fell in love with – Jumanji. A Robin Williams-headlined family adventure film about a mysterious board game that brings a load of jungle craziness into our world: what’s not to love? 22 years on, a belated (and surprisingly decent) sequel is here, trading dice for digital. A perfect excuse, then, to look back at where it all started.
Jumanji was actually an adaptation of a children’s picture book from 1981 by Chris Van Allsburg. His other stories, The Polar Express and Zathura, were also later made into films. Joe Johnston was approached by TriStar to direct, with producers impressed by his work with a similar cast of adults and children on Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. The next task: get Williams on board (ahem) as the lead.
The late, great Robin Williams was a huge star by the mid ‘90s, having made the transition from off-kilter adult comedian, and was in the middle of his greatest run as a family-friendly face. He was hot off the back of Hook, Aladdin and Mrs. Doubtfire – and would go on to star in Flubber and Bicentennial Man. The only problem here was that he’d turned the project down. But Johnston and Jumanji’s screenwriters reworked the original script and soon Williams was cast as Alan Parrish.
With Bonnie Hunt and Jonathan Hyde also among the grown-up cast and an already award-winning Kirsten Dunst alongside young Bradley Pierce, the game was on.
“In the jungle you must wait/Until the dice read five or eight”
Jumanji, fuelled by Williams’ star power, is a great thrill-ride based on an interesting but ostensibly simple conceit: a board game that brings its obstacles to life. But it’s much more than that, with a complexity and even darkness that went over our heads at the time. While largely maintaining a lighter tone with monkeys, quips and the running joke of Carl the cop’s constantly-under-attack car, there are more than a few scares and moments of mild peril when you’re a kid. With Alan being sucked into the game, Peter being crushed inside a car and a smattering of giant spiders, killer crocodiles and man-eating plants, you should have something that’ll make most children jump or hide behind their popcorn.
The ever-increasing stakes as the game progresses are undeniably impressive. Early rolls of the dice produce relatively minor obstacles such as bats, oversized mosquitoes and a lion. By the finale, the players are dealing with a stampede, a monsoon and the jungle itself taking over the old Parrish family home. Then of course there’s the seemingly unstoppable hunter Van Pelt. His only quarry is Alan himself, and he won’t give up until he has him stuffed and mounted.
And let’s not forget, at the centre of it all, the board game itself. An exquisitely crafted, hinged wooden box, inside is a criss-cross of winding paths leading to a central crystal which produces ghostly rhyming couplets with each roll of the dice. Ornate tokens move themselves around the board and can’t be removed or repositioned. It knows whose turn it is – and it knows if you cheat, as Peter finds out with the punishment of being turned into a kind of weird monkey-boy. And on either side are written those iconic rules: “Adventurers beware: do not begin unless you intend to finish.” The game is a character in itself: enigmatic, uncompromising, and luring new players in with the sound of drums.
This is where one of the creepier layers comes in, when viewed with more analytical eyes. The game’s origins and purpose are never revealed. Who made it? When? How? Why? Is it merely an extreme form of entertainment, or are there deeper machinations at work? The young Alan – bullied, and rebelling against the path his father has planned for him – is sucked into “a game for those who wish to leave their world behind.” It could be interpreted that this happens to him because he hates his real life so much. Perhaps Jumanji seeks out children who have pain and sadness in their lives, such as the orphaned Judy and Peter. Yet all four protagonists’ lives are ultimately improved by completing the game, so maybe that’s the purpose after all. For Alan particularly, facing up to Van Pelt represents his need to stand up to his father as a boy. They’re even played by the same actor, Jonathan Hyde.
“A hunter from the darkest wild/Makes you feel just like a child”
It’s these questions and deeper readings which help give Jumanji such longevity and legendary status, but fundamentally it’s still a damn fine family adventure. Many of the CGI and animatronic jungle animals admittedly look pretty ropey and dated now, but at the time they were top-notch, produced as they were by ILM. But the practical effects and sets still impress, and the movie clocks in at a kid-friendly 104 minutes.
Then there’s Robin. We’re introduced to his character as a child in the 1969 prologue, then follow Judy and Peter until they release the trapped Alan, so it’s half an hour in before Williams arrives. And when he does, he has long hair and a big beard and is wearing leaves, after 26 years in the jungle. While it’s not long before he’s doing monkey impersonations and reluctantly joining the game, Williams finds real emotion in Alan’s return. His glee at finally being home is soon tempered by the realisation that his parents have passed away, and his leap into action to save the children from a lion is followed by a genuine fear of playing Jumanji again.
Robin Williams may not seem an obvious choice for a crocodile-wrestling man of action, but it’s his immature charm that sells him as a grizzled survivor who’s really just a teenager denied a chance to grow up.
Bonnie Hunt offers solid support as Sarah, battling her own Jumanji-induced demons, while the supremely talented Dunst and little Bradley Pierce are terrific as the young leads. Both jump in feet first and seem to have a great time, making many a ‘90s kid hanker for their own jungle adventures.
The film’s legacy included an animated TV series that ran for three seasons, and the quasi-sequel Zathura: A Space Adventure in 2005. Directed by Jon Favreau and with a cast including Josh Hutcherson and Kristen Stewart, Zathura was based on a genuine sequel to Van Allsburg’s book and was marketed as “A new adventure from the world of Jumanji.” Aside from its similar premise though, Zathura shared no other link to the 1995 film.
Jumanji was a box office smash at Christmas 1995, eventually grossing $262 million worldwide against a $65 million production budget, though it only sits at a harsh 50% on Rotten Tomatoes. Now, as Dwayne Johnson, Jack Black, Kevin Hart and Karen Gillan bring Jumanji to a new generation with Welcome to the Jungle, there’s no better excuse to give the beloved original another roll of the dice.