Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Monday, June 17, 2019

Director Report Card: Joe Johnston (1995)

4. Jumanji

In 1981, Chris Van Allsburg wrote and illustrated a 32-page children's book called “Jumanji.” It was a simple story about a magical, jungle-themed board game that brought dangerous animals into the kid's home. That probably doesn't seem like a very cinematic story but producer Peter Guber disagreed. After meeting Van Allsburg, Guber began to develop a film adaptation of “Jumanji.” Though Joe Johnston hadn't had a hit in a while, I guess having “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” on your resume – and showing a clear aptitude for effects-driven family films – meant something. Johnston would secure a starring role from Robin Willaims and “Jumanji” would become a big success, earning enough at the box office to be the seventh highest grossing film of 1995.

In 1869, two boys bury a mysterious box in the muddy grounds that will someday become Brantford, New Hampshire. One hundred years later, Alan Perrish – the bullied son of the town's leading employer, a shoe-factory owner – uncovers the box. It contains what appears to be a board game called Jumanji. Upon playing it with Sarah, a girl he likes, the board unleashes giant African bats on the house and sucks Alan inside. In 1995, orphans Judy and Peter are moving into the former Perrish home in the now impoverished Brantford. They discover Jumanji, thinking it's a simple board game. That's before they unleashes giant mosquitoes and a lion into the house. The same action returns Alan, now an adult who has grown up in a wild jungle. Realizing they must complete the game to undo this nightmare, they find the now adult Sarah and attempt to survive each new horror Jumanji unleashes.

With Van Allsburg's “Jumanji” having such a simplistic story, the makers of the cinematic “Jumanji” had to get creative. The trio of credited screenwriters realized the set-up could basically be a clothesline on which to hang a series of special effects sequence. This is essentially what “Jumanji” is, a collection of episodes devoted to what happens when various jungle animals and fantastical horrors are unleashed on a small New England town. This doesn't sound like an especially deep story and it isn't. However, “Jumanji” keeps barreling forward, moving the characters – and the audience with them – from one set-piece to the next. It's an exciting film that rarely slows down long enough for a viewer to notice how thin its script truly is.

What I really like about “Jumanji,” and what I might've responded to when watching the film as a child, is that it plays like a kid-friendly horror flick repeatedly throughout its run time. From its opening minutes, Johnston's film is playing with this style. The first scene is set during a rain storm at night, a pair of boys frantically trying to escape the thunderous drumming. From there, we have an attack involving wild bats. Huge mosquitoes swoop around and attempt to suck people's blood, resulting in multiple off-screen injuries. The sequence where a lion appears in the attic, its tail and paws crossing the keys of a piano, is surprisingly ominous. That horror-lite atmosphere peaks during a sequence when a group of creepy-crawly giant spiders attack our heroes. Johnston's direction, with its shot of bats ominously eeking in the dark or lions sneering out of an attic, is surprisingly tense at times.

Another reason to like “Jumanji” is that a lot of creativity is on display. The writers of the film have fun with the concept of transporting a jungle adventure into a suburban town. The creatures on display aren't just lions, elephants, and rhinos. Though we never see the Jumanji that exist inside the game board, it's clearly not a normal African jungle. Rather, it's a fantastical nightmare version of a jungle. Aside from the giant insects, the game also brings creeping vines that shoot venomous barbs into our world. That sequence concludes with a giant, Audrey II-style bud that is especially neat. Later, those vines transform the Perrish house into a foggy jungle. When a monsoon is summoned, water floods the house. When quicksand is summoned, Alan sinks into the floors.

It is easy to see why Joe Johnston was attracted to this job. This was another opportunity to balance gee-whiz adventure with cutting edge special effects. The effects are unquestionably the star of “Jumanji.” Lots of elaborate puppetry and animatronics are employed. The evil creeping vines are my favorite, an excellent example of a long overlooked and rarely well executed horror movie premise. A moment where the vines grab a police car and snap it in half is especially impressive. The giant spiders are also fantastically brought to life, their skittering and slimy appearance enough to send arachnophobes into a panic. Honestly, the alligators that appear in the monsoon sequence might genuinely be the scariest creatures in the film though, all fearsome sweeping tales and massive snapping jaws. The film sacrifices the absolute realism of the lion to give the elaborate puppet some personality, in the form an amusingly expressive face. seamlessly interacting with the actors.

However, “Jumanji's” commitment to cutting edge effects also means it features some of 1995's best CGI. Granted, some of these effects have aged better than others. The mosquitoes look pretty cool and even interact well with their surroundings, especially in the scene where they attack the kids while hiding inside a car. However, other elements are less convincing. The floor turning to quicksand looks pretty cheesy. The animals in the stampede obviously do not pass muster. The hyper-violent and mischievous monkeys look terrible. Their jagged fur does not look real. Neither do their faces, which are so artificial looking as to be unintentionally unnerving. I wish the film hadn't made these critters the stars of so many scenes. I will give the CGI team credit for giving the simian terrors some personality. There's a cute moment when the leader of the monkey troop tells the others to disperse in different directions.

Even though Johnston seems most focused on the special effects, “Jumanji” does attempt to include some sappy Spielberg-ian themes. “Jumanji's” scope includes the entire town of Brantford. When Alan disappears in the sixties, everyone assumes his dad killed him. This causes the shoe factory to close down, which causes the entire town's economy to collapse. In a cartoonish touch, huge stretches of the town are occupied solely by the homeless. Yet Alan's relationship with his dad takes precedence over the Decline of the Small Town. The father only believes confrontation can resolve problems and doesn't want Alan to be weak. Later, Alan finds himself attempting to pass this approach on to Peter, which he immediately regrets. (It's no mistake that the thing from “Jumanji” Alan fears the most is a Great White Hunter played by the same actor as his dad.) By the end, the town is saved and the Daddy Issues are put to rest. It seems pretty out of place, is my point.

Also out of place, at least some of the times, is the humor. The jokes in “Jumanji” that work the best are the ones that arise out of the characters' interactions. The way Judy spins wild yarns about her parents' death to anyone who will listen. Or Alan reacting to the modern world after leaving Jumanji behind. However, too often the jokes in “Jumanji” are overly gimmicky, winking too hard at the camera. More than once, something wacky happens on-screen – monkeys drive by on a police motorcycle, for one example – and a character has a smart-ass comment about it. An extended sequence in a ransacked shopping center is overly broad and wacky, featuring some random “Home Alone” style booby traps. One scene even has a character breaking the fourth wall with a look into the camera. It's a little overdone and takes me out of the movie.

Oddly, Robin Williams is not the main source of comic relief in the film. Williams actually restrains his trademark manic energy throughout most of the movie. Save for his earliest scenes, where Robin tears through the town in wildman clothes, he's mostly reacting in quietly terrified fear or bemusement to what happens around him. Which isn't to say Williams doesn't get some laughs in. He performs some very small but extremely funny moments here and there. Such as his reaction to being sucked into the house's floorboards, or when he tries to schoo a giant spider away with just his breath. Despite being less frenzied than usual, Robin Williams is still ideally cast as an overgrown kid in a man's body.

Judy and Peter have their own arc too, the kids coming to terms with their parents' untimely deaths over the course of their adventure. It's another one of the film's forced-in emotional beats. However, the talented actors in the part help salvage that. A young Kristen Dunst plays Judy. Though she's mostly there to react to special effects, Dunst's sense of humor and ability to depict both wide-eyed wonder and sarcastic cynicism makes Judy into more of a character. Peter is played by Bradley Pierce – who also voiced Tails in “Sonic SatAM” which is, ya know, very important to me – and also does a good job. The kid spends about half the movie under extensive make-up, after the board game punishing him for cheating by turning him into a monkey humanoid. It could've been easy for the kid to act under that but he succeeds.

When I nit-pick about actors in the film making dry comments about something wacky that just happened on-screen, I'm mostly complaining about Bonnie Hunt as the adult Sarah. This is no fault of Hunt, who actually gives a solid performance. In the scenes conveying panic, such as when Alan re-appears for the first time in twenty-five years, invalidating all the years of therapy she underwent, are very good. She also has decent chemistry with Willaims, when the two get to bickering. David Alan Grier has a thankless job as the film's straight man, the cop who is constantly battered around by the film's crazy events. Grier at least gets laughs out of it though. Jonathan Hyde is Van Pelt, the big game hunter and the film's human antagonist. Hyde clearly enjoys hamming it up at the unhinged Victorian stereotype. It's to the film's credit that the character isn't made into a goofy joke but allowed to remain intimidating.

”Jumanji” was a frequent presence in my childhood VHS player. I was so fond of the film, that I actually wrote up a detailed description of a video game adaptation for the Sega Genesis, with levels and boss battles based on the various incidents in the film. (This is a testament to my childhood nerdiness though I'm really surprised the film wasn't actually made into a 16-bit platformer, as it has all the elements necessary.) While that didn't exist, there were a few spin-offs. An animated series ran from 1996 to 1999. Despite ugly character designs, it was a well-written and fascinatingly bizarre show. Naturally, there was a real “Jumanji” board game created. I had it as a kid and was disappointed by how convoluted the rules were. More films would eventually follow as well. As for the original, it's no masterpiece and is a fairly shallow film in many ways. Yet it's fun too and fun counts for a lot. [Grade: B]

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