The best comedies and kids films are informed by the promise and aftereffects of brutal, scarring adulthood. The Gold Rush, for all of Charlie Chaplin’s gracefully clumsy contortions, is set in a world where cannibalism, disease, and rampant death are day-to-day realities. The computer love of WALL-E is adorable until you realize that the future involves a calcified Earth and a life of seated content intake on a massive spaceship. And in Joe Johnston’s Jumanji, the youthful adventures of the protagonists barely hide ideas of loss, mortality, time, and guilt in the guise of Robin Williams’ Alan Parrish, a sensitive boy who lost a lifetime to a board game.
It’s Parrish’s disappearance in 1969 that kicks off Jumanji, as we watch him as a young man (Adam Hann-Byrd) get sucked into the inner world of the titular magic game. His presumed death and the aftermath of his evaporation paint not only the actions that lead to the titular board game being opened and unleashed upon the world once more, but also the tone of the film. Amongst the squeaking super-spiders, roaring stampedes, and murderous plant life that take over the old Parrish house, now the home of Nora Shepherd (Bebe Neuwirth) and her charges, Judy and Peter (Kirsten Dunst and Bradley Pierce), what’s most threatening is the unknown. It’s the lack of closure over his son’s disappearance that ruins Alan’s wealthy father (Jonathan Hyde), and its Nora’s inability to know what Judy and Peter, whose parents died in a car crash, are going through that pushes them further into their neuroses. And for all the chaotic explosions of deadly animals and greenery that come from Jumanji, the world inside the board game remains unseen and therefore far more terrifying.
This is a crucial difference between the 1995 original and Jake Kasdan’s Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, which seems to be separated from such dire stakes and conditions. It is essentially the inverse of the original film, focused almost entirely on the inner world of the Jumanji game, now a video game in the mode of Uncharted or the updated Tomb Raider. To be fair, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is clearly meant to be an action-comedy where Jumanji is a family adventure with shades of melodrama, and the tones are meant to be disparate. But even in the elements that both of the productions share – an intent to thrill and be funny – Welcome to the Jungle immediately eliminates its sting by not putting much of any attention into who the characters are, before and after they become video game avatars.
To say that Williams’ performance anchors the film would be an understatement. Few actors could have so easily made their characters feel so warm yet unpredictable, insane yet relatable. Jim Carrey might have been able to have pull this off, but the list doesn’t go much further from there. The character of Alan requires a constant unease with the rhythms of adulthood yet fully in touch of survival abilities and wisdom that makes him uniquely adept at handling what is a total disaster for a number of municipalities. Williams handles that imbalance with keen comic poise and his irrepressible humanity, and he guides the audience through the film’s admirable bedlam steadily.
The update to video games also comes with exactly no imaginative touches. Modeled like the hyper-realistic Uncharted games, the world of Welcome to the Jungle is just a generic jungle world and a bazaar. It’s relatable to fans of similar adventure games but it also gives the filmmakers an out to think as little as possible about design and world making. Both the 1995 film and the recent release rely on digital effects to create animals, but the mix of practical effects in the former makes a big difference. The overflowing set design and production design of the Parrish house after its been overtaken by vines, floods, and all sorts of unleashed animals makes the transformation feel more real. Hyde pulls double-duty to tellingly play the menacing Van Pelt, a mad hunter who hunted Alan in the Jumanji world and follows him out to the new world. It’s a bold move that pays off, thanks largely to Hyde’s fantastic comedic performance.
It’s a sad fact that almost no modern children’s films feel so in touch with sacred and secretive human experiences like death and regret. Its true that the film’s ending somewhat softens the effects of these darker concepts, allowing Alan and Sarah, played by Laura Bell Bundy and then Bonnie Hunt, to rewrite history upon ending the decades-spanning game. Hunt’s Sarah, even with frustratingly limited screen time, sketches a convincing portrait of a woman still stuck out of time because of an inexplicable experience. The film indulges the pleasures of irresponsible childhood – wild adventure, unending destruction and chaos, creatures of all shapes and sizes – while also consistently evincing a reflective perspective on the events, underlining everything with the fleeting nature of time and a knowledge of death.