In Defense of JUMANJI

JumanjiWhen you visit, they only give Jumanji a score of 50%. Ouch. Roger Ebert called it “gloomy” and Owen Gleiberman of Entertainment Weekly gave it only a C+ implying that the story did not live up to the special effects. Double Ouch.

Yes, Jumanji is not a perfect film. There are moments that make me squirm, like when Robin Williams is attacking some wild vines with a sword and shouts “Harvest time!” That is not the only embarrassing shout in the film, later Judy (played by a young Kirsten Dunst) holds a checkout lane gun up at a person’s eyes and shouts “Price check!” To help emphasize the bad joke, the camera cuts to the cash register where it declares “no sale.”

Not to be a grinch, but many of the classics we love aren’t perfect. I’ll even give you a cherished example. In The Wizard of Oz, when the witch orders out her monkey army to get Dorothy she references a scene that was edited from the film. She explains to her monkeys that she had sent out bugs to tire them out first. Of course, we don’t see the fabled “jitterbug” scene happen (and probably for very good reason, it sounds incredibly cheesy). But, unless you know the history of the film, this really doesn’t make any sense at all. What bugs? What did the bugs do to them? How does a bug bother a scarecrow and a man made of tin?

Now in saying all that, I’m not comparing The Wizard of Oz to Jumanji, even though they both have many similar themes (returning to a home, forging a new family, friendship, etc.) and buy into the great myth that underlines most children stories (a normal child swept away into an adventure to find they are special). The Wizard of Oz is a classic and will never disappear. I can’t say the same for Jumanji in the future, and that makes me a little sad. There is a good chance that over time it might become nothing more than another chapter in all those future biographies of Robin Williams that are certainly being planned right now.

I love the film Jumanji. It is comfort food on the screen for me. And since the tragic death of Robin Williams (our hero Alan Parrish) I have watched it three times… and there is a good chance I might be watching it again soon.

I am a member of the Mork generation. Mork & Mindy came out at exactly the right age for me. His zaniness and innocence spoke to my young playful mind because in many ways Mork was a child, not exactly understanding the world and always saying whatever is on his mind without a filter (usually not aware that it is funny to others). As I aged, Mork, I mean Robin Williams, seemed to come along with me. When I discovered John Irving, I had his performance in The World According to Garp; and even when I was obsessed with Shakespeare (still am), he was in Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet and even made an appearance in the great Dead Again (highly recommend) which is filled with Shakespearean actors.

When Robin died I wanted to find something to watch with my son that starred him. Aladdin was an easy choice, but he had already seen that. It is a cartoon, a great one of course, but I wanted something more live-action.

I first considered Hook since my kids love Peter Pan so much. But before I could show it to him I wanted to check it out. When I first saw the movie back when it was released I knew there was something wrong with it. Now, being an adult, I can pinpoint all of the problems with an amazing accuracy. Overall, the film is just a mess. Don’t believe me? Let me give you only a few examples:

  • The film is over two hours and twenty minutes long. There is no reason why it needed to be that long! Part of the fault for this is in the script, where every point that the writer wants you to understand he plays out multiple times. Peter is a bad dad in multiple scenes, Hook explains his plans multiple times, etc. We get it, dude! We got it the first time! Move on writer-man!
  • Neverland is badly designed and lighted. It doesn’t look magical or mystery. It looks like a giant set on a bright soundstage.
  • The lost boys, in a scene you would not want any child under 12 to see, get into an insult match. If a kid said any of those in school they would be in trouble. Seriously, parents would be called.
  • The fat children jokes are a little hard to take and cruel.
  • The Tinker Bell storyline has nothing to it and the problem is that they tried to have a storyline there. It was not necessary. And to cut to her reaction to everything was just overkill.
  • And… worst of all… Hook kills a kid. I am going to repeat that- in a children’s story Hook kills a child. We see the sword go in. Wow…

So yeah, Hook was off the table. But what about my favorite of his films? What about Jumanji?

Jumanji BookJumanji is loosely based on the beautifully illustrated book by Chris Van Allsburg (by the way, a native of my hometown!). He also helped on the script, turning his short work about a children’s amazing afternoon into an epic tale that spans decades.

For those that don’t know, Jumanji is a board game you don’t want to play. With each roll of the dice a new safari-esq horror is added to your life and it will be there until you finish the game. Consider it an evil version of the Jungle Cruise from Disneyland.

The film begins in the late 60’s when two kids first find the game. They begin playing and one of them (Alan) is pulled into the game. He will be in the “land” of Jumanji for 26 years, only pulled out after two other children in the 90’s begin playing. When Alan then emerges he is a grown Robin Williams.

Beyond the very creative (and wonderfully unpredictable) device of the game, the script steals (or borrows) from many other children stories. Like the themes and myth I mentioned already, the villain is played by the father (much like in productions of Peter Pan), again carrying on the theme of growing up.

Yet, here is the thing that makes Jumanji so special. See, Jumanji doesn’t skim on the psychological effects of the experience or on life in general. Judy and Peter (the kids from the 90’s) are mourning the loss of their parents in two very traditional ways (Peter won’t talk and Judy is always lying) and are troubled because of it (getting in trouble at school on their first day). Sarah (the other child from the 60’s, now grown and played by Bonnie Hunt) and Alan both suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome.

They are all scarred individuals, there is no one wearing a cape. Their mental anguish is real for them and it is a burden they each carry during their adventure.

It’s daring, it’s real, and that is in a children’s film. Whoa.

A lot of people have been trying to get into Robin Williams’ mind since his suicide. You see it on blogs and in articles. Either they run to quotes from him, comedy routines, or simply (and honestly) their imagination. It’s a presumption to try to assume you can figure someone out that easily, especially as someone as complex as him. I’m not going to be that arrogant and try.

All I can say with any certainty is that Robin presented himself to the world in a certain way (through his comedy and movies) and that is how he wanted people to know him and, probably, remember him. So that is what I am trying to focus on, not any of the morbid details the press seems drawn to.

A few nights ago I tried showing Jumanji to my son. He is only six, and it was a little too scary for him. Unlike the superheroes he loves, this felt like his world, and the adventures were happening to real kids in their own homes.

We stopped halfway through the movie.

As he went to bed that night, he whispered to me, “Let’s watch the rest when I am eight. I will love it then.”

I’m certain he will.

Me Stuff, front coverIf you liked reading this post, why not check out one of my books? I’ve just had a book published collecting some of my most popular posts. It is entitled Me Stuff.

If fiction is more your thing, I’ve had four novels published in the last few years, A Jane Austen Daydream, Maximilian Standforth and the Case of the Dangerous DareMy Problem With Doors and Megan.

You can find all of these books via my author page here. Thanks for reading!

Need an editor? Dream of finishing that book but need some help? Learn about my editing services by visiting this page on my site. Or you can contact Rebecca T. Dickson and request to work with me by clicking the image below.

Rebecca T. Dickson, Editor

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