Sunday, September 11, 2011

Lousy Special Effects Bring Down The Otherwise Average Jumanji.

The Good: Concept is decent
The Bad: Light on character development, Special effects
The Basics: A very average action-adventure film, Jumanji is a mediocre film on a bland DVD which is entirely avoidable.

There are moments when it unsettles me to consider my wife. Last night, I had one of those moments when I tried to support her desire to take in some fantasy-type movies before Halloween. She wanted to watch Jumanji (don't ask me how this is Halloween-related, but she seems to think it is, so I don't argue) and so she got the DVD out from the library. She gushed about how it was one of the movies she grew up on, recalling when it came out when she was only about seven. I recalled how I was a Senior in high school when it came out and this led me to shudder. Astonishingly enough, in the intervening years, she has seen it many, many times and last night was my first. Honestly, I do not feel like I have been missing anything by not seeing it before now.

Jumanji fits into the family-friendly niche of movies that A Night At The Museum now occupies where the movie has what is considered cutting-edge special effects, but then looks ridiculous in a few years. Watching the movie on our HDTV, my wife cringed to realize she once was fooled by the special effects and I found myself laughing AT the movie more frequently than laughing with it. The short result of this review would be this recommendation: Jumanji is playing on some station in the world virtually any given minute and one would be hard pressed to find a weekend when it wasn't playing on a television station one receives; why buy it when you can get it free? In other words, this was never such an extraordinary film that one might want to add it to their permanent collection.

In the late 1960s, a boy is being hounded by local bullies and he visits his father, the owner of Parrish Shoes. After inadvertently costing the forward-thinking Bentley his job, Alan Parrish is beaten up by his nemesis. Alan discovers a chest with a boardgame, Jumanji, and he retreats to his parent's house to open it up. When Sarah returns his bicycle to him, Alan and Sarah begin playing the game, but soon discover it is magical. Alan is sucked into the game and Sarah runs off in terror. In the 1990s, the Shepherd family moves into the old Parrish mansion and the children, Peter and Judy, begin exploring the house. In the process, they hear the drums that lure players to the game and they begin playing "Jumanji." After releasing giant mosquitoes and a lion from the boardgame, Peter rolls the requisite number to release Alan from the game.

Rescuing the children from the lion, Alan realizes that to stop the mayhem now being released from the boardgame, they must finish the game. Alan and the children recover Sarah and the continue playing the game. This releases into the real world jungle animals, calamitous events (like earthquakes) and a psychotic hunter bent on killing Alan. The four try desperately to survive long enough to finish the game before they and their town are destroyed!

Jumanji is very family-friendly, despite a few perilous moments with a stampede of jungle animals and a gun-crazy hunter. Unfortunately, like many family-friendly films, the net result is a lower level of attention to character. Outside Judy lying compulsively, the kids are pretty generic; they are types instead of actual characters. Even young Alan is just a geeky kid who is beaten up by his peers and Sarah is a generic girl. Sarah has no real character until she is an adult and she pops back into the film as a psychic. Unfortunately, even that character development is hinged entirely on her youthful encounter with the Jumanji game.

The character with the most actual character is the older incarnation of Alan as released by the game. He has learned to survive within the game and he has developed instincts that allow him to act like an adult, despite not having much in the way of formal training. As a result, he has the emotional simplicity of a child, but the adult instincts that make it realistic that he might know how to survive in perilous situations. The resolution to the film, however, do negate much of the character development. Even so, Alan is ably played by Robin Williams and this is a role that combines his childlike excitement he has presented since his earliest standup routines with the serious tact he began taking in the mid-1990s.

The rest of the acting is awkward at best. Kirsten Dunst is notably stiff and just plain bad, reminding viewers just why child actors are the bane of many directors, as well as of audiences everywhere. She seems to be trading on the idea that she is cute in a way that is neither innocent or charming (it's a niche whose appeal I've not yet managed to appreciate) and she plays Judy with a stiffness that is indecipherable. After all, Judy is a child the same age as Dunst, so the leap she is being asked to make as an actress is pretty much nonexistent. At the same time, Kirsten Dunst is asked to play opposite virtual characters and scenarios and she does a fair job at running and looking afraid when required. But in any moments with dialogue and the need for actual human interaction, she is stiff and bland.

In fact, the best acting in Jumanji comes from Bebe Neuwirth. Neuwirth plays Judy and Peter's mother. After years of being typecast as the stiff and emotionless Lilith on Cheers, Neuwirth is afforded the opportunity to play a loving aunt and she is efficient, but clearly cares for the kids. She makes the bit part memorable and believable in a film concentrated on the unreal.

Jumanji is not about character development or even plot because the plot is ridiculously simple: four people get trapped playing a game where the consequences manifest in the real world. Instead, this is a mediocre special effects action-adventure movie where the characters run, jump, freak out, but not really learn anything new or develop in any meaningful way. The purpose is to entertain and it is adequate at that. However, the special effects are very much outdated and as a result, the computer-generated animals move awkwardly and are lit terribly, making their frequent appearances seem more ridiculous than perilous. This, ultimately, drags the movie down now.

On DVD, Jumanji comes with a commentary track that is fair. As well, there are featurettes on the special effects and the casting of the movie. However, these are very typical bonus features and they do not make the source material any better. Instead, the only real advantage to the DVD over watching this on television is that one does not have the commercials.

I tend to look at DVDs for the overall value and Jumanji is short, but entertaining. DVDs one adds to their permanent collection ought to have an enduring sense of entertainment to them and this is just a gimmick-based movie which is easy to overlook when building a permanent collection.

For other works with Robin Williams, please visit my reviews of:
Old Dogs
Happy Feet
Bicentennial Man


For other movie reviews, please visit my index page on the subject by clicking here!

© 2011, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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