Roll the dice … watch people die (well off-screen it is a family film)
Jumanji (1995): 7 out of 10: A cursed board game forces its players to keep playing till the end, where every roll of the dice brings a new deadly horror into their world.
The Good: Having a cursed board game that forces everyone to finish it or the increasingly deadly horrors will never go away is a great premise for a horror movie. (And also the year 2020). Alas, this is a family comedy starring Robin Williams. The solution from the filmmakers? Make a horror movie and pretend it is a family comedy starring Robin Williams. And in that vein, they kind of pulled it off.
I enjoyed myself watching this film. It works much better than it should. Jumanji is greater than the sum of its parts, and much of that is because of the general concept of the film. With every roll of the dice, something new and wacky will happen such as giant mosquitos spreading a pandemic or a great white hunter in a large discount store hunting children with his newly acquired assault rifle. You know, whacky kid’s stuff.
Did I mention the quicksand floor right out of a Nightmare on Elm Street movie or the murderous knife throwing, gun-toting monkeys right out of Gremlins? Oh, and the now penurious hometown in the future is a dystopian time loop right out of Back to the Future Part II. I am telling you if any particular scene isn’t your brand of nightmare fuel wait a few minutes and someone will roll the dice and here comes the giant spiders or the rhino charge or Audrey from Little Shop of Horrors will come out to play. And Audrey shoots poisonous barbs like a Triffid as well as swallowing you whole and crushing police cars.
The Bad: It is, however, a movie of its time (There is a lot of homelessness and looting two favorite 90s topics). There are unfortunately many things in Jumanji that haven’t aged well (for example, a gunman shooting up a Walmart style discount store) but for my money, nothing seems as dated as the Home Alone gags.
You know this isn’t the only movie from the nineties I recently watched that jumped on the Home Alone bandwagon. You would have thought that Mel Brooks’ Robin Hood: Men in Tights would have put an arrow through the heart of that gag with its painfully unfunny Home Alone shtick that stuck out in a movie that had plenty of painfully unfunny gags vying for attention. But alas, no. Here we are two years later and Jumani is still trying to ride that Home Alone bandwagon.
The Ugly: Time often causes false stories to develop around movies. For example, there is an often-told tale that people were initially appalled by Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace. They were, according to the tales, storming out of the theater in disbelief and tears. This simply is not true. The initial reaction to Episode 1 was positive. Only over time and after two direct sequels did people reflect back to how bad they felt the movie actually was.
I bring this up because I am hearing people claim that the special effects in Jumanji were great for the time and we should not judge them. This is false. I remember seeing the previews for this film when it was released and my opinion at the time and those of others was the special effects looked awful. Time has not been kind to Jumanji’s special effects, this is true, but they were pretty god awful at the time as well.
What’s worse is that they are bad across the board in so many different ways. Highlights from the practical effects include giant spiders that would not be out of place on a shelf at the Hobby Lobby around Halloween and a giant crocodile that would embarrass Disney World’s Jungle Cruise.
Of course, the CGI takes this embarrassment to a whole additional level. We have a lion that is oversized and simply doesn’t look right, the stampeding rhinos and elephants featured in the trailer, (Though in all fairness to Jumanji, Peter Jackson’s King Kong, which came out ten years later and had a significantly bigger budget, also managed to stage a horrible CGI stampede.), and of course the monkeys.
The monkeys are the Gremlins of Jumanji in more ways than one. They inhabit not quite the uncanny valley per se but a different place entirely where they wouldn’t have been out-of-place in Who Framed Roger Rabbit hanging out with Bugs and Mickey. They are so cartoonish and poorly realized it almost seems an artistic choice. The creatures of Jumanji don’t belong in this world, so that is why they are so horribly distorted… that sort of thing.
Monkey fur is very hard to do in 1995’s CGI, and the artists working on Jumanji clearly ran out of either money or time (or maybe both). Even taking into consideration these handicaps, they miss the mark by a country mile. One would have thought they might have done some tests during preproduction and then opted for a script change.
In Conclusion: The overall effect of Jumanji is a positive one. The script is generally well written, and the acting is solid across the board with Robin Williams anchoring the piece and solid supporting turns by Jonathan Hyde (in a dual role), Kirsten Dunst, and Bebe Neuwirth in a role so thankless I swear the movie forgets she is even in it. I also liked the ending, which was both positive and wrapped up a lot of loose ends such as the hundreds of deaths that result from Robin and the kids playing the game. You know good old family entertainment.