The movie money men are a cynical bunch. It's no coincidence that 1995's children's romp 'Jumanji' makes its return to DVD at a time remarkably coinciding with the stateside release of 'Zathura' which like it's predecessor is an adaptation of a Chris van Allburg kiddies novel. Hey, there's even a free ticket included in the packaging if you weren't overly convinced it's all a marketing gimmick. Buy the DVD, watch the new film, everyone's happy and the suits get enough money in the kitty to remake 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest' with Adam Sandler, Martin Lawrence and a happy ending, perhaps. In any case such is life, and the respectable box office 'Jumanji' turned a decade ago has obviously been enough to send it into its now third incarnation in the DVD market. Now I'm a crotchety swine at the best of times and I freely admit I hate kids. I hold special discontent for that particular Americanised notion of the child, their messy, loud-mouthed abrasive behaviour, the way they jump about, their foppish hair, their little pristine white basketball boots. I hate kids who play kids (go home Curly Sue), and I hate kids who play adults playing kids (I'm thinking of you Haley Joel Osment, or that freaky imp out of the Ring). As a consequence films with a predominant 'kid' factor are a red flag to me. Bona-fide children's film starring kids, even worse. Now throw into the mix the true Mephisto, smarmy man-child Robin Williams and I'm really in trouble. It's fair to say that when 'Jumanji', an adventure for all the family pairing two scamps with the Bicentennial Man himself, first entered my DVD player my heart didn't exactly skip a beat, but more flopped out of my chest to find a damp dark corner in which to die. It is with great shock then to report that, not only am I still here to tell the tale, but I didn't find myself steaming with hatred while watching this film. In fact, and I say this in a hushed tone, I actually almost found myself enjoying it. As plots for films go, this would probably make a good board game. It's so two-dimensional in structure that the DVD actually comes with a nifty mini Jumanji board game for you to play in the comfort of your own home. The game actually utilises the film as a tool with which to play, so really this is less a full developed movie, and more a sixty-five million dollar version of Parker's AtmosFear. For what it is the story begins in 1969, where twelve-year old Alan Parish finds a mysterious board game (the Jumanji of the title). Upon playing the game with a young friend Sarah, Alan finds that the game magically brings animals to life, and he is vanquished to the jungle for his trouble. 26 years later the game is recovered by young siblings Peter and Judy Shepherd (Bradley Pierce and a young Kirsten Dunst). By playing the game they free Alan (Williams) from his jungle prison but also unleash a chaotic series of wild and wonderful animals into the neighbourhood. Their only chance of ending the nightmare and returning to normality is to enrol Sarah (Bonnie Hunt) in the adventure and finish the game. Essentially the narrative arc is just window dressing for a series of explosive set pieces to keep the nippers entertained and to demonstrate the wonders of the then relatively infant CGI technologies of the time. Some of the effects end up holding up better than others. The stampeding animals actually look pretty impressive (if never realistic), as does the lion (and there's the faintly ridiculous scene of a loin-clothed Williams complete with Robinson Crusoe beard in combat with the beast in the lobby of his home). Not faring so good are the troop of mischievous monkeys who look like they've walked straight out of a Dire Straits video circa 1985. In all fairness this scant attention to the required parameters of successful screenwriting actually works in the favour of the film. Too many times in this kind of cinematic venture I feel the icy grip of diabetic coma. I don't really care if little Billy's parents died in an automobile accident in his youth and he hasn't been able to love since. Or that Susan's pet pony was a gift to her by her one true love who went to war in Mali or whatever. Here mercifully any poisonous schmaltz that could have dragged the movie down to the level of saccharine cheese-fest is left by the wayside, thanks to merciless editing. The obvious romantic subplot between Alan and Sarah is amusingly pared down to the point where it consists solely of the fact that the film's epilogue shows us that she's up the stick. At no point is Williams allowed to slip into that mawkish sentimentality that became his forte in the nineties and that is a blessing no mortal should underestimate. This is a kid's film, it runs about and makes a lot of noise, and it has no need for such trivia as character development. Another moment of creative editing concerns Alan's return from a quarter of a century in the wilderness. His only psychological trauma from having no human company for two-thirds of his life, and discovering his house is gone and his parents are dead is the fact that he has trouble distinguishing between reverse and first gear in his car. Genius. Whilst other films seek to patronise us into making us think they are something they are not, at least 'Jumanji' is a breath of fresh air. It's a big dumb blockbuster, and doesn't have any pretensions to be anything other than that. The film is aimed squarely at kids, but at least it's not a kid's movie marketed as serious adult entertainment which makes up for 90% of Hollywood's output. I can't say it's a particularly great film in the traditional sense, but as a marketable piece of business cinema helmed by a grade-A children's adventure journey-man Joe Johnston, it does exactly what it says on the tin. Undemanding, and if you're in the right frame of mind, surprisingly good fun.
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