area theaters, starts Friday
ASTONISHMENT COMES EASY these days. All around us, from magazines to movies, our worst fears and wildest dreams have taken credible visual form. Logos hop off of products, angels stroll alongside us. We think nothing of these walking impossibilities, because for the past 10 years or so they've been our daily wallpaper.
So imagine, in the Age of Morph, the challenge of pulling off this magic with a fresh eye. The ante increases almost daily; if you want an audience to sit there slack-jawed, you'd better have something pretty special this time around.
The people behind Jumanji had a prior advantage, because they had the wonderful book that Chris van Allsburg wrote. Van Allsburg used a simple pencil to show how two kids threw some dice and got a lion on their piano and a squad of monkeys in their kitchen. He also knew how to suggest all this with a single picture and a simple paragraph on each two-page spread.
The movie, of course, is pumped up on mega-FX. Van Allsburg reportedly had some serious problems with the steps taken to get the story onto the screen, but he gets story credit and now approves of the movie. And well he should, because the surreal wonderment of the book is still there. This movie is not a perfect "adaptation," but rather an astonishing improvisation on the book's themes.
Jumanji is the name of a board game, first seen being buried in 1869 and then unearthed in 1969. Its second owner is Alan Parrish (Little Man Tate's Adam Hann-Byrd), a wealthy, picked on, and seemingly unloved wimp. On the night his aloof parents announce he's being sent to boarding school, Alan and his friend Sarah take out the game and start to roll. Two tosses of the dice, and Alan is sucked into a little dome on the board while Sarah is running terrified out the front door.
Jump to the present, and Peter (Bradley Pierce) and Judy (Kirsten Dunst) are moving into Alan's old house with their Aunt Nora (Bebe Neuwirth). Newly orphaned, the kids are uninterested in the "fresh start" this moldy old house represents. But then they find the game (actually, by emitting an incessant drum beat only they can hear, it finds them) and so begins both
the story and their eventual salvation. The monkeys show up, giant mosquitoes come swarming out, and then Alan himself--now a hairy, leaf-covered Robin Williams--appears. Alan discovers the terror of any awakened dreamer; the world before sleep is completely gone. He has to be persuaded to play the game, too, because the animal and natural disasters it brings on will only stop when one player wins.
Jumanji remains sharp and interesting because its terror, humor, and humanity bounce to the same rhythms. The monkeys may throw a knife inches from Alan's face, but then they turn into comic relief, drunken yahoos with tails. A typhoon may swoop through
the Parrish mansion's hall, but it also brings Alan and the adult Sarah (Bonnie Hunt) together for a long-awaited kiss. In magic terms, this is sleight-of-heart; with its mixture of awe and (glancing) sincerity, it's a Penn & Teller act with a little more feeling.
Van Allsburg describes his game as one that was "played for keeps... that had consequences," and this spirit guides the movie's deep, though mixed psychology. On the debit side, this kids' adventure becomes one more opportunity for Robin Williams to rediscover adulthood. Alan Parrish wasn't even in the book, but he's all over the place here. His family is also a New England benevolent-despot mini-dynasty;
because he disappeared, the family shoe factory closes down and the town goes to pot. His return brings new kinds of trouble: Along with the rhino stampedes and mosquito-borne sleeping sickness, people are rioting and looting as if Rodney King's assailants were acquitted all over again. Finally, the innocent victim most comically afflicted by the game's disasters is--surprise--a black guy (David Alan Grier), town cop but still a bug-eyed stereotype.
On the credit side, the movie is primarily about domestic terror, and each participant is wounded: the orphaned kids, the long-absent former kid, the shell-shocked witness to a mumbo-jumbo abduction. This accidental family has more history inside it than the hapless victims of Jurassic Park, and Jumanji's walking-wounded theme pays off in a mostly hidden fact: The manic hunter who's sprung from the game and chasing Alan with an elephant gun is played by the same actor, Jonathan Hyde, who plays young Alan's father.
Although the hunter is central to the final showdown, this particular nugget--Dad as a nightmarish assailant--is not really emphasized, and gets lost amid an extended slapstick chase in a discount store. But it's a tiny clue that the people behind Jumanji knew more than a little about what they had in their hands. Van Allsburg's gift for a provocative story (read beyond his over-friendly Polar Express, if that's all you've heard of him) proves that, as with accidents, most good adventures begin--and end--in the home.
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