It's the old dilemma: Spectacle vs. substance--which do you choose for a movie? Ideally, you choose both--even if in unequal doses.
Jurassic Park, for all the backlash it finally endured (ranging from gripes that the special effects dominated the actors to the complaint that there were only 10 minutes of animated predators), served up a full-course meal of genuine entertainment: romance, comedy, smart kids in danger, even a dash of science (heavy on the fiction). The movie didn't talk down to its audience but assumed there was a common level where everyone could enjoy themselves.
Jumanji features the latest in sophisticated computer graphics, and if you felt Jurassic Park was stingy in meting out its special effects, you'll feel like a kid in a candy store here. Vile bats, gigantic mosquitoes, a stampede of rhinos and elephants, even a monsoon in a spacious foyer just scratch the surface of the endless parade of technological wizardry. (The film undoubtedly has the most incredible effects since, well, Toy Story.) Only two things are missing: 1. a heart, and 2. a head.
For all the time and expense that obviously went into making Jumanji, you'd think someone, somewhere down the line, would have thought to make the characters attractive, the developments believable, or anything about the screenplay unique. Obviously these are seen as hindrances rather than necessities, and the movie seems written with a juvenile market expressly in mind--pre-adolescents who'll express their only critiques by the money they will inevitably slap down to watch it over and over. That's too bad, because this film should be shown at Expo or a graphic artists' convention, not in a theater.
Nothing about the picture merits recommending aside from the animals themselves, and while they are plentiful, once you've sat through their shenanigans for 15 or 20 minutes, they quickly lose their appeal; your mind begins to wander to such fascinating topics as, "Did I feed the dog before I left home?" or "Now, where did I park?"
Jumanji is a board game accidentally unearthed by 12-year-old Alan Parrish (played as a child by Adam Hann-Byrd, and as an adult by Robin Williams). The game appears innocent enough until Alan gets sucked into it. He remains trapped there for 26 years, until two kids (Kirsten Dunst and Bradley Pierce) inadvertently release him as an adult--and set loose the daunting jungle creatures Alan has fought off for years. The rules say that the only way to return things to the way they were is to finish the game, which, of course, means things will get worse before they can get better.
How depressing that a promising premise, ripe with the potential to say something significant about childhood traumas or the survival instinct, wastes the one shot it has on such brain candy as this.
Jumanji painfully recalls Hook, in which Williams also played the grown-up with a shocking past. Like Hook, it squanders the opportunity to be something more than The Goonies with adults. (Last summer's wretched Casper had the same ethic.) You want the filmmakers to explore Jumanji as a modern Pandora's Box, a way to explore human fears as well as the limits of computer technology, but the film's inherent silliness resists an exploration of these ideas.
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When Alan emerges from the game with 20-year beard growth and wearing garish makeshift clothes, he looks like Barney Rubble as played by David Crosby, not a man who's spent a quarter of a century battling unthinkable horrors. When Bradley Pierce begins moving backwards along with the evolutionary chain, he doesn't immediately turn into a chimpanzee but slowly transforms into a delightful feral child--Eddie Munster with an attitude. The film sidesteps or trivializes the human issues--how Alan survived is never discussed, and his reactions to what became of his parents make no emotional sense--because humanity has no place in it.
There's no denying how eye-popping the special effects are. Yes, the lion does look real, and you'd swear that bats are actually flying through the house, but to what end? After the novelty wears off, they become boring and only pad the movie. The one exception is the scene where Alan first gets ensnared in the game: The way he's pulled in has a ghostly, mystical nature. If director Joe Johnston had made any effort to maintain that kind of atmosphere throughout, Jumanji wouldn't suffer from the shopworn pitfalls common to muddle-headed fare where sassy kids are usually ahead of adults. (His film Honey, I Shrunk the Kids was also a strained, witless exercise in special effects.)
In movies like this, mailboxes were made for being run over by cars; screeching tires and loud noises are handy surrogates for coming up with dialogue or plot. Ultimately, Jumanji is nothing more than a stale parlor trick gussied up to look like real magic, but the illusion is so transparent that the smile crossing your lips isn't a sign of amazement but an intolerant, mocking sneer.
Jumanji. TriStar Pictures. Robin Williams, Bonnie Hunt, Kirsten Dunst, Adam Hann-Byrd. Written by Jonathan Hensleigh, Greg Taylor, and Jim Strain. Directed by Joe Johnston. Opens December 15.