90s Movie Challenge Week 13: Jumanji (1995)

It’s nostalgia time again chums! Welcome back to #90sMC. This week we promise that you won’t get board as things get really quite dicey with – Guess Who – it’s Claire Skinner, that’s who! And while we don’t claim to have a Monopoly on this kind of thing, others might Scrabble to beat our smooth Operation… (OK, you can stop now please, Ed.).

Can I just Risk one more joke? (No, you can’t, Ed).

Oh well, it was a Trivial Pursuit anyway. (You’re sacked, Ed).

From 1995, it’s Jumanji!

Jumanji topped the U.S. Box Office when it came out in 1996 but I confess this is a film I missed on its big-screen outing. Indeed, I didn’t discover till the mid-2000s, when the video became a well-worn staple in that long-gone museum piece of my thirties, the Panasonic VHS player. (I note such players are now still selling on eBay – ooh! tempting – but all my video cassettes are in a landfill far, far away, so I will resist the urge to buy another one!)  Jumanji quickly became a firm favourite as that most precious of treasures – a family film which both my eight-year-old son and I could enjoy simultaneously. Scarred by years of enduring Thomas and the Magic Railroad on repeat, discovering Jumanji was like finding an oasis in the desert. It may have rated 48 in Channel 4’s 100 Greatest Family Films, broadcast in 2005, but it would certainly have been in my top 10. Spoilers will follow…

Re-watching the film for this review for the first time in several years, I found it still immensely entertaining. This is largely due to the central performance by the inimitable, and much missed, Robin Williams. Apparently, Bruce Willis was considered at one point for Williams’s role as schoolboy Alan Parrish, swallowed up into a jungle inside a mysterious and magical board game in 1969 and not seen again till 1995. Something tells me Die Hard with a Monkey would not have been nearly as enjoyable as Jumanji (although now I’ve said it, I do want to see that film!) Williams brings his trademark lightness of touch in combining humour, drama and pathos. He utterly convinces as a man who is still at heart a little boy, struggling with the shock of the loss of his parents and the transformation of his whole world, but equally delighting in the benefits of life outside the jungle such as flushing toilets instead of banana leaves!

Alan provides important guidance through the game to two orphans, Judy and Peter Shepherd, who have rediscovered the game after moved with their aunt Nora (hi there, Lilith from Frasier!) into the former Parrish mansion. Judy, played by a scarily young Kirsten Dunst, and Peter, played by Bradley Pierce, are feisty, well-rounded characters who start off bickering with Alan before becoming friends. They are joined by Alan’s childhood friend Sarah, who abandoned him in 1969 when he was sucked into the game. Sarah is played by Bonnie Hunt who provides a great foil for Williams’ performance. Her call to her therapist to discuss how 2,000 hours of therapy have apparently been washed down the drain provides levity in a potentially dark moment.

The film doesn’t shy away from showing the consequences of Sarah’s decision to leave Alan. It is a bit like It’s a Wonderful Life in reverse. The film starts off by showing us the impact of Alan’s loss – from the abandoned Parrish mansion to his father’s derelict shoe factory, and the consequent decline of the whole town. Alan’s parents died in 1991, heartbreakingly believing he had run away after they threatened him with boarding school. (Others in the town, more darkly, thought they had murdered him.) It is only towards the end – appropriately enough, at Christmas time – that we learn that Bedford Falls doesn’t have to become Pottersville after all. The successful conclusion of the game in 1995 creates an alternate timeline where Alan’s parents are still alive, the town’s fortunes are secured, Sarah and Alan find love, and even the Shepherds’ parents seem likely to avoid their fatal skiing accident.

Despite this happy ending, the film is far from cosy or twee. The animals and plants which run amok as the game is played provide a sense of real tension and genuine peril. They spill out into the world beyond the Parrish mansion, bringing chaos to the local community. People are hospitalised and property is trashed. Carl Bentley, erstwhile factory employee turned police officer, watches in bemusement as his car is slowly destroyed by a combination of stampeding animals and gunshots from colonial hunter (and Alan’s father’s substitute) Van Pelt. In this time of the pandemic that sense of life being out of control and nature’s destructive power, seems somehow very apposite.

The only complaint I had with the film is that the CGI does not always live up to modern standards, perhaps unsurprisingly, although it won awards at the time. The monkeys in particular look rather unreal which took me out of the film at times. However overall Jumanji stands the test of time. It has humour, action and adventure, mixed with characters you care about. There are valuable lessons on the power of friendship, courage and good parenting. I would say it may be too scary for children under six or seven – there is a lot of fodder for nightmares in the triffid-like plants and giant spiders – but older children and young teens will still find much to enjoy, alongside their parents. Roll on the day when my grandchildren grow out of The Gruffalo and are ready to appreciate the genius of Jumanji!

Come back next time for a guest spot from our chum and all-round good sort Clair Budd who takes time out from tweeting about old repeats of Top of the Pops and Upstairs Downstairs to travel back to 1994 (via most of the major news events of the 50s, 60s and 70s) and in the process, show us how life is indeed like a box of chocolates (you can’t stop eating and get fat? Ed.) Er. no. Don’t be so rude (Sorry, Ed.). I meant “You never know what you’re going to get”. Except we do know that it’s going to be excellent (so that metaphor is a bit rubbish then, isn’t it? Ed.).

Join us in one week for Forrest Gump!

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