The 1995 movie Jumanji tells the story of two kids, Alan and Sarah, who follow the sound of drums to a board game. They begin to play, but quickly realize it’s no Monopoly—Alan’s first roll banishes him to the jungle (which jungle? who knows), and a terrified Sarah doesn’t stick around to take another turn. However, once the game is begun, it has to be completed; twenty-five years later, two kids named Peter and Judy rediscover the game and roll again. Their roll brings a now-adult Alan back out of the game, and they rustle up adult Sarah to help them finish playing. The house and town are overrun by terrifying jungle flora, fauna, and weather as they take their turns, but finally Alan makes the winning roll. All of the terrible effects of the game are sucked back into the game, including the time Alan was trapped in the jungle—it resets all the way back to Alan and Sarah as kids, undoing all the bad things that happened in that timeline as a result of the game.
Watching this movie makes me feel all sorts of nostalgia. If I remember correctly, this was the first movie we bought on VHS that featured a commercial for the new and exciting world of the DVD. (It wasn’t this, but it was similar in tone.) I adore Robin Williams in it, and I totally forgot until this most recent rewatch that it also stars a baby Kirsten Dunst. I also like that the movie doesn’t screw around with how terrifying the game is. The players’ lives are constantly threatened, and both Sarah and Alan have clear mental issues stemming from the game’s effects. Alan seems developmentally stunted in some ways, having spent twenty-five years in the company of what we can assume was exclusively dangerous animals and the big game hunter, van Pelt. He doesn’t know how to drive or shave and he gets into childish arguments with Judy and Peter. Meanwhile, Sarah had her own problems to deal with, what with being the last person who saw Alan before he vanished. She was shunned by her peers and spent years trying to convince herself that she’d imagined the powers of the game as a coping mechanism to cover up having witnessed Alan’s gruesome death. When Alan, Judy, and Peter show up at her house to ask her to continue the game, she passes out and then has a total breakdown. Most movies aimed at kids wouldn’t follow through on the psychological consequences of their plot twists this way.
While I do love this movie, there are some things I have to comment on now that I look at it with an older and more critical eye. First of all, there’s an unavoidable conversation about race and exoticism to be had. The exotic-sounding word “Jumanji” apparently means “many effects” in Zulu, but I can’t find a source for that besides a Buzzfeed article and the IMDb trivia page for the movie. The game summons people by playing a “tribal” drumming that only they can hear, and pours out threats that clearly originate from an Africa-based jungle, but the only person it generates is a white poacher. (I’m honestly not sure whether this is better or worse, though; the game bringing in a generic Black tribe as a threat would have the potential to be even worse.)
Yes, the movie does have a Black supporting character, and he’s originally an inventor/designer—but he spends most of the movie as a beleaguered cop within the alternate game timeline. Obviously when the game is completed and the timeline is reset, he goes back to being the mastermind behind the shoe factory’s big breakthrough design. But the bulk of the time we spend with him he’s just the supporting Black guy who reacts comically to the weird shit happening around him.
Another complaint is that, as a kid, Alan is shown to have a very contentious relationship with his distant, stern father. He considers running away, and only doesn’t because he ends up playing Jumanji with Sarah. But when adult Alan tries to find out why the town has fallen into such a depression while he was trapped in the jungle, he discovers that his father poured all his company’s assets into looking for his missing son, eventually bankrupting the factory that was the town’s major source of employment. He’s told that his father loved him so much he ruined himself searching for him and then died in despair when he wasn’t successful, sending us the message that even though his father never made any overtures of affection to Alan himself, he did care for him.
This is a tricky message because it puts the onus on Alan to be more understanding of his father, rather than on his father to… be a better father. Clearly Alan grows up okay post-game, as we see him as an adult in the reset timeline and he’s happy and engaged with the business his father passed on to him—but it’s because, with the knowledge gained from the game, young Alan reaches out to his father and works to improve their relationship.
As far as female characters go, the movie does have a gender-balanced main cast, with Sarah and Judy sharing equal screentime and plot importance to Alan and Peter. The guys are the ones who kind of kick off the plot, as they’re the ones who want to play the game in both decades, but it’s hard to say whether that makes the girls less worthwhile as characters, because not wanting to play the game is… probably the more sensible option.
All that said, I’m still going to tune into this movie whenever it’s on, even if our own VHS of it is lost to the sands of time.