Skip to main content

When I think of all the energy I spent visualising you as a radiant spirit.

Jumanji
(1995)

(SPOILERS) My main recollection of this original Jumanji-verse outing was that it was overly reliant on shoddy CGI. There is a hefty wodge of that, in particular the monkeys, but there’s also a significant physical effects element in Joe Johnston’s characteristically serviceable-but-nothing-more-than-that movie. Otherwise, while the actual environment is very different to the recent computer game-ised incarnations, it’s structurally fairly similar, in that the best of Jumanji is in the set-up, faltering somewhat once all hell breaks loose.

But while the new movies have comedy antics on their side – yes, I know this one has Robin Williams, but he’s in relatively restrained mode, and far less engaging once he gets rid of the whiskers quite early on; David Alan Grier probably gets more laughs – this undoubtedly has a better grip on the gameplay element. In that, while the mid-section of the picture sags significantly, you do actually get a sense of stakes. Nominally, the Jake Kasdan-helmed movies give you that with the three lives and varying limitations of special skillz, but the actual “plotting” of the game the players find themselves is on the indifferent and inconsequential side. In Jumanji, each roll of the dice unleashes some new torment or punishment, and if some of them come up short – Jonathan Hyde isn’t especially effective or amusing in his secondary role as big-game hunter Van Pelt – the later attempts to ensure all four players continue to take part while beleaguered by such impediments as being trapped in a floor work quite effectively.

Structurally, the picture singles itself out, offering not one but two prologues – so one less than John Carter – a brief one in 1869 in which the box containing Jumanji is buried, then an extended 1969 episode introducing us to young Alan Parrish (Williams’ character) and his fateful unearthing of the game. So the film proper begins about fifteen minutes in and 26 years later. There are some nice touches, such as adult Alan, now emerged from the game and teaming with its new players, youngsters Kirsten Dunst and Bradley Pierce, finding he must track down and persuade his childhood friend Bonnie Hunt to take part; previously, she fled the house pursued by bats rather than take her turn. These incremental parts are in their own way quite engrossing, so making the effects-fest that consumes the picture proportionally less so.

The conclusion is also perhaps a surprising choice, one I didn’t remember. In Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, Colin Hanks’ character escapes and is revealed to have grown up in full knowledge of his experiences, a twist on The Wizard of Oz “It was all a dream” scenario; here, due to the real-world impact, history itself is reformed, butterfly effect-like, and the present-day kids never even get to play (so creating a paradox). Such magical “business” is further emphasised by the festive setting of the final scene, as if to invoke A Christmas Carol, in which the players are reunited, yet only two of them are aware of their history together. The “It all works out nicely for all” requires rather a bit of leap for Alan’s dad, from detached and overbearing to suddenly empathic and understanding, but Hyde, in his other, bookended role, just about pulls it off (for what it's worth, which isn't much, there are limp thematic gestures in respect of the importance of one's parents, Dunst and Pierce having lost theirs, regaining them at the end, and Williams fretting that "26 years in the deepest, darkest jungles and I still become my father". It's probably for the best that none of this is very resonant). It’s also nice to see Bebe Neuwirth, even if it’s in a typically-for-her-thankless movie role.

Jumanji’s something of a messy affair, never quite giving the sense that its three writers have thrashed the source material – Chris Van Allsburg’s 1981 book – into a satisfyingly functional narrative. Nevertheless, it’s easy to see why it was reinvented and modernised, although it took almost twenty years of development hell to get there (a sequel had initially been planned for release in 2000). At the time, it felt like Jumanji was just another in a line of fantasy-tinged Williams pictures (The Fisher King, Hook, Aladdin, Toys, Being Human), so his presence held at least equal weight with the concept. You couldn’t say that of the current incarnation, even if those playing the avatars have become intrinsic to its success (indeed, all you really have to do when the concept inevitably gets stale is introduce some new comic faces to take over). 


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

How would Horatio Alger have handled this situation?

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998) (SPOILERS) Gilliam’s last great movie – The Zero Theorem (2013) is definitely underrated, but I don’t think it’s that underrated – Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas could easily have been too much. At times it is, but in such instances, intentionally so. The combination of a visual stylist and Hunter S Thompson’s embellished, propulsive turn of phrase turns out, for the most part, to be a cosmically aligned affair, embracing the anarchic abandon of Raoul Duke and Doctor Gonzo’s Las Vegas debauch while contriving to pull back at crucial junctures in order to engender a perspective on all this hedonism. Would Alex Cox, who exited stage left, making way for the Python, have produced something interesting? I suspect, ironically, he would have diluted Thompson in favour of whatever commentary preoccupied him at the time (indeed, Johnny Depp said as much: “ Cox had this great material to work with and he took it and he added his own stuff to it ”). Plus

He’s so persistent! He always gets his man.

Speed (1994) (SPOILERS) It must have been a couple of decades since I last viewed Speed all the way through, so it’s pleasing to confirm that it holds up. Sure, Jan de Bont’s debut as a director can’t compete with the work of John McTiernan, for whom he acted as cinematographer and who recommended de Bont when he passed on the picture, but he nevertheless does a more than competent work. Which makes his later turkeys all the more tragic. And Keanu and Sandra Bullock display the kind of effortless chemistry you can’t put a price tag on. And then there’s Dennis Hopper, having a great old sober-but-still-looning time.

To survive a war, you gotta become war.

Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985) (SPOILERS?) I’d like to say it’s mystifying that a film so bereft of merit as Rambo: First Blood Part II could have finished up the second biggest hit of 1985. It wouldn’t be as bad if it was, at minimum, a solid action movie, rather than an interminable bore. But the movie struck a chord somewhere, somehow. As much as the most successful picture of that year, Back to the Future , could be seen to suggest moviegoers do actually have really good taste, Rambo rather sends a message about how extensively regressive themes were embedding themselves in Reaganite, conservative ‘80s cinema (to be fair, this is something one can also read into Back to the Future ), be those ones of ill-conceived nostalgia or simple-minded jingoism, notional superiority and might. The difference between Stallone and Arnie movies starts right here; self-awareness. Audiences may have watched R ambo in the same way they would a Schwarzenegger picture, but I’m

You were a few blocks away? What’d you see it with, a telescope?

The Eyes of Laura Mars (1978) (SPOILERS) John Carpenter’s first serial-killer screenplay to get made, The Eyes of Laura Mars came out nearly three months before Halloween. You know, the movie that made the director’s name. And then some. He wasn’t best pleased with the results of The Eyes of Laura Mars, which ended up co-credited to David Zelag Goodman ( Straw Dogs , Logan’s Run ) as part of an attempt by producer Jon Peters to manufacture a star vehicle for then-belle Barbra Streisand: “ The original script was very good, I thought. But it got shat upon ”. Which isn’t sour grapes on Carpenter’s part. The finished movie bears ready evidence of such tampering, not least in the reveal of the killer (different in Carpenter’s conception). Its best features are the so-uncleanly-you-can-taste-it 70s New York milieu and the guest cast, but even as an early example of the sub-genre, it’s burdened by all the failings inherit with this kind of fare.

No matter how innocent you are, or how hard you try, they’ll find you guilty.

The Wrong Man (1956) (SPOILERS) I hate to say it, but old Truffaut called it right on this one. More often than not showing obeisance to the might of Hitchcock during his career-spanning interview, the French critic turned director was surprisingly blunt when it came to The Wrong Man . He told Hitch “ your style, which has found its perfection in the fiction area, happens to be in total conflict with the aesthetics of the documentary and that contradiction is apparent throughout the picture ”. There’s also another, connected issue with this, one Hitch acknowledged: too much fidelity to the true story upon which the film is based.

But everything is wonderful. We are in Paris.

Cold War (2018) (SPOILERS) Pawel Pawlikowski’s elliptical tale – you can’t discuss Cold War without saying “elliptical” at least once – of frustrated love charts a course that almost seems to be a caricature of a certain brand of self-congratulatorily tragic European cinema. It was, it seems “ loosely inspired ” by his parents (I suspect I see where the looseness comes in), but there’s a sense of calculation to the progression of this love story against an inescapable political backdrop that rather diminishes it.

The game is rigged, and it does not reward people who play by the rules.

Hustlers (2019) (SPOILERS) Sold as a female Goodfellas – to the extent that the producers had Scorsese in mind – this strippers-and-crime tale is actually a big, glossy puff piece, closer to Todd Phillips as fashioned by Lorene Scarfia. There are some attractive performances in Hustlers, notably from Constance Wu, but for all its “progressive” women work male objectification to their advantage posturing, it’s incredibly traditional and conservative deep down.

You don’t know anything about this man, and he knows everything about you.

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) (SPOILERS) Hitchcock’s two-decades-later remake of his British original. It’s undoubtedly the better-known version, but as I noted in my review of the 1934 film, it is very far from the “ far superior ” production Truffaut tried to sell the director on during their interviews. Hitchcock would only be drawn – in typically quotable style – that “ the first version is the work of a talented amateur and the second was made by a professional ”. For which, read a young, creatively fired director versus one clinically going through the motions, occasionally inspired by a shot or sequence but mostly lacking the will or drive that made the first The Man Who Knew Too Much such a pleasure from beginning to end.

What do they do, sing madrigals?

The Singing Detective (2003) Icon’s remake of the 1986 BBC serial, from a screenplay by Dennis Potter himself. The Singing Detective fares less well than Icon’s later adaptation of Edge of Darkness , even though it’s probably more faithful to Potter’s original. Perhaps the fault lies in the compression of six episodes into a feature running a quarter of that time, but the noir fantasy and childhood flashbacks fail to engage, and if the hospital reality scans better, it too suffers eventually.

One final thing I have to do, and then I’ll be free of the past.

Vertigo (1958) (SPOILERS) I’ll readily admit my Hitchcock tastes broadly tend to reflect the “consensus”, but Vertigo is one where I break ranks. To a degree. Not that I think it’s in any way a bad film, but I respect it rather than truly rate it. Certainly, I can’t get on board with Sight & Sound enthroning it as the best film ever made (in its 2012’s critics poll). That said, from a technical point of view, it is probably Hitch’s peak moment. And in that regard, certainly counts as one of his few colour pictures that can be placed alongside his black and white ones. It’s also clearly a personal undertaking, a medley of his voyeuristic obsessions (based on D’entre les morts by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac).