First View Movie Review – Jumanji (1995)

jumanji-game-box
Would you play this game? Like, ever?

Adoring as I do Jumanji 2: Welcome to the Jungle — my favorite film of 2017 — I looked forward to finally watching the original Jumanji with Robin Williams. My understanding was the game updates itself for its era, meaning the 1995  game would be a vintage style board game — with an actual ‘board’ and dice. The kind of game where you move little pieces around, and the winner is the one who gets to the end first. (Warning: spoilers follow for Jumanji 1 &2.)

Problems with the Jumanji Board Game

What I didn’t expect was…well, several things. It doesn’t take place in the Jumanji world — a fantasy element I loved in Welcome to the Jungle. Instead, the jungle elements come to Earth, but only in an’ immersive’ way at the climax.

Second, I didn’t expect the original game to be so ludicrous and mean-spirited. The board game makes no sense. NONE. You have to randomly survive each roll of the dice, and it doesn’t seem like either skill or chance is involved.

In a typical board game, some turns reward the player. In this Jumanji sequel, every single die roll is a nightmare. Some player results are merely bad; others are downright demonic. I guess that fits in with the opening scene in historical times, where the sentient game is actually implied to be evil.

In Jumanji 2, it became an interesting video game, with lots of cool clues for each gamer. I like clues, especially ones the viewer can follow along and guess at. J2 didn’t cheat, although misdirection was in play. But the game didn’t seem sinister.

And lastly, there’s the reset-button ending. This isn’t how the game ends in J2, which confused me. If that was true, then none of the kids in Jumanji 2 would still have been around at the end. (J2 is a direct sequel, not a reboot.)

Back to Jumanji the First

To be fair, Jumanji 1 had some incredible set-pieces. The CGI looks as bad as one would expect of the time, but you get swept away (and the characters literally do get swept away) by the creative sequences. I think the indoor lagoon was my favorite, but also loved the lion in the bed, and the vicious man-eating vine plant scenes. It killed me when the vines crunched the police car.

And the monkey scenes? Meant as comic relief, they totally tanked. They looked bad, acted like Gremlins on speed (and that’s saying a lot)…and maybe were hilarious at the time? The mosquitoes were much, much more cool.

Robin Williams (and the Rest)

Unfortunately, Williams wasn’t exactly funny in this film. I’d say he was even subdued, and I wonder if this part of his life was more about his internal demons than creative work. The younger version of his character had more life to him.

I get that 26 years in a alternate world will change you, but I don’t think that’s what happened here. Normally Williams brings nuance and a sparkle to any role, but even his ‘silly’ Jumanji scenes felt off.

Knowing in hindsight Williams was deeply unhappy makes watching this 1995 movie painful, but he seemed to enjoy roles like The Genie in Aladdin (1992) and Mrs. Doubtfire (1993) so much more. Maybe the subsequent years took their toll on him.

Of the other actors, the little boy was often delightful, and the movie was much better for it. A young Kirsten Dunst was…fine. Her best scene involved swatting giant mosquitoes with a tennis racket, but she seemed to just screech her way through the rest of the film.

Altogether, I was surprisingly bored by Jumanji 1, since it was mostly a series of wild set-pieces barely stitched together with dysfunctional plot-lines and nonsensical game rules. I expected more fun. Maybe you had to grow up with this Jumanji to appreciate it.

I did like the coda, implying that you can’t get rid of the game, and Jumanji 2 picks right up on the beach where it leaves off.  And the drum sounds are used to great effect. If you listen through the credits, you can softly hear them right there. That was a nice stinger in an era where after-credit extras were barely a thing.

Movie Grade: C+

Movie Review – Jumanji 2: Welcome to the Jungle

And there’s news! Here’s a clip where the Rock discusses the upcoming Jumanji 3 (Release date December 13, 2019):

Movie Review – Jumanji 2: Welcome to the Jungle

This sequel version of Jumanji is adorable and funny. Predictable, yes, but the story is based on a video game plot, so it’s kind of a baked-in thing.

It’s also bit too pat in how each teenage character gets the perfect game avatar to grow as a person, but this is yet another thing that can be explained away in-universe: it’s a magic game, and that’s what it does. So I guess we can make allowances for this too. It’s all in good fun to service the adventure story.

This movie is very like a fantasy-version of The Breakfast Club, updated for the cell-phone/video game era. It’s got detention, stereotypical teens from different cliques, and the theme is an exploration of how their characters learn to work together. They become close through their experiences. So, yeah, the same concept.

The plot is paper-thin, which is, again, part of the conceit. [pullquote]What the film really sells are the sweet character interactions, tons of gorgeous visuals, lots of humor, and the swashbuckling tone. I’ll say it: this could become a lightweight adventure/humor classic. [/pullquote]We’ll see, over time. The audience enjoyed it — they were laughing and clapping throughout. There’s also a good message for young people about tolerance and acceptance. Nothing world-changing, but I’m glad I got to see this.

Everyone in the film was just great — the actors seemed like they had a blast. Jack Black was fantastic, and I normally don’t enjoy his brand of broad humor. He had the obviously funny part, but didn’t oversell it, even when teaching “Martha” how to flirt. Dwayne Johnson was super playful, and pulled off a believably bashful teen. Kevin Hart was a crack-up as the “backpack guy.” Karen Gillan has nice comedic timing, and it was good to see her actual face without the blue makeup of Nebula from Guardians of the Galaxy. At some points she still channeled Nebula, but her physicality as a warrior served her well in both roles. Everyone played off each other very well. The ensemble was just too damn cute, and they knew it.

Do you need to see the original Jumanji to follow along? In a word, no. Somehow the old one never pinged on my radar. I think I should catch it now; Jumanji 2 was that much fun. I laughed almost the whole time, and enjoyed these veteran actors doing their campy best of reviving the old “body swap” tale. It made me forget about life for a few hours, and that’s what a movie can do at its best.

Movie Grade: A-

Virgin Movie Review – Jumanji (1995)