Jumanji

How much fun is it to play a board game with people you don’t like? New question: How much fun is it to watch people you don’t like play a board game in an event you can only observe? The answer to either, for me, is “not a whole lot of fun,” which is exactly the way I’d describe Jumanji, a 100-minute movie that essentially involves four people, none of whom having much character to speak of, rolling a die to get to the end of a board game. That’s it.

Of course, you can distill anything down to make it sound trivial and meaningless, and truth be told, part of Jumanji was left out of that description. The board game wants to kill them. Every time they roll, new dangers await them, almost all of them seemingly being transported from the jungle. Oh, and once you start playing the game, you can’t stop. And playing the game to its conclusion is the only way to make all of the carnage go away. I’ll admit that this is a clever premise, but the film has less structure than it desperately needs, and apart from a few zany scenes, there’s not a whole lot to watch for.

Robin Williams is one of the main draws for audiences, although he’s not the lead and if you’re expecting either a funny or charming performance, you’re not going to get one. Two children take the leading roles — rarely a good idea — whose names are Judy (Kirsten Dunst) and Peter (Bradley Pierce). Their parents recently died, so they’ve now moved into a new house in a new town with a new guardian because newness is in the air and there’s nothing you can do about it.

They find the titular board game in an upstairs room, and decide to start playing it. After a couple of rolls, Robin Williams pops up out of nowhere, having been trapped inside of the game for 26 years. He, along with the children, must finish playing the game, all while fighting off whatever computer generated creatures it decides to throw at them. No, there’s no logic regarding what is going to appear, and to my surprise there wasn’t even a natural progression or escalation to the proceedings. It was all just random.

Not all of the effects and creatures are CGI. There is a mix between practical and computer effects. At one point, one character is transformed into part-monkey; that was definitely done with prosthetics. I can safely say that because the monkeys we actually see in the film are far less convincing. Ditto to the stampede of elephants and rhinos. This is coming out two years after Jurassic Park which had to create giant dinosaurs, and this one looks far worse. The only excuse is lack of effort, especially considering the comparable budgets.

Jumanji is for children. It is based on a picture book from the ’80s, a story structure that doesn’t translate directly to film, but that was the attempt regardless. Here’s how the film goes: (1) roll dice; (2) face whatever the game conjures out of thin air; (3) find a safe place; (4) rinse and repeat. That’s fine in a picture book, but it doesn’t work as a movie. On the big screen, it makes it appear that there was only the loosest definition of a script in place before filming began.

Will it entertain the kids? I’m not sure. Perhaps. I mean, it doesn’t bother with characters or plot, so maybe throwing countless dangers at people playing a board game is exactly what the children need to entertain themselves for just over an hour and a half. Or maybe they’d be better served by playing an actual board game, hopefully one that might make them think for more than a couple of second, which is something Jumanji won’t be able to accomplish.

Earlier it was mentioned that having the leads of your film be children is generally a bad move. I stand by that claim. The majority of children in movies are poorly acted. That’s not quite true with this film, however. Kirsten Dunst already proved that she’s more than capable, which she showed in Interview with the Vampire. Her sarcasm adds a little charm to this picture. Her co-star, Bradley Pierce, doesn’t fare as well, but his character is supposed to be — from what I can gather — still somewhat traumatized by the death of their mother and father.

I would have liked more delving into Robin William’s character, whose name is Alan, which I hadn’t previously mentioned because it honestly doesn’t matter. Here is a man who has been separated from other humans, and civilization in general, for the last 26 years. However, apart from a couple of gags at the beginning, this time away hasn’t seemed to affect him in the least. Diving into his psyche, to see how this truly had an impact on his mind, would have given Jumanji some intelligence, heart, and an actual character. Instead, there’s nothing but the game to latch onto, and it’s a predictable effort that’s not worth watching.

Jumanji might be passable entertainment if you’re around the age of 12, but after that, won’t you be hoping for a little something more? One character who is more than just a blank slate? A plot that actually ties things together instead of just having an assembly line to shoot out action scenes whenever someone roles the dice? Jumanji was more boring and less intelligent than it should be. A straight adaptation of a picture book is not recommended.

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