Saturday 5 May 2007

Jumanji (1995) Joe Johnston

In 1869 two boys get rid of something by burying it deep in a hole in the fog shrouded forest. We don't know what it is, but it's small, dangerous and it has drums beating inside it. A century later to the year, more boys are chasing young Alan Parrish in Brantford, New Hampshire. They're in the same fog shrouded forest that just happens to not be either fog shrouded or a forest any more. It's the location of his father's factory and they're in the process of expansion. Amidst the building site Alan hears the drums and rescues what had been so carefully hidden.

It's a game, called Jumanji, and it looks very cool indeed. However when he starts to investigate he finds that the game has a life of its own and sucks him in, literally, until the dice roll either five or eight. Unfortunately his game partner, Sarah, is too busy running away from the flock of bats that her roll generated to work out how to get him back. 26 years later a new couple of kids end up moving into his house, hear the drums and get drawn into the game themselves.

Joe Johnston is not a name that leaps to mind when talking about the great directors of today but to be brutally honest, he's one of the best. I've seen Jumanji before and it's a truly great children's film. However with such a reliance on admittedly awesome CGI, the madcap talents of lead actor Robin Williams and the powerful presence of a very young Kirsten Dunst, I didn't even bother to find out who the director was. I've also seen a couple of his other films too, again great children's films: Honey, I Shrunk the Kids and The Rocketeer which impressed me greatly. However I still didn't have a clue who directed them, let alone guess that they were made by the same man. It was when I saw and was massively stunned by October Sky that I went looking for the name of the man behind it and found that all of these films were made by Joe Johnston.

He started out during visual effects, hardly surprising for someone making a film like this, for such major films as the original Star Wars trilogy, Raiders of the Lost Ark and the original Battlestar Galactica TV series. After becoming a director in 1989, he's still only made seven films, eight if you count a straight to video episode in the Young Indiana Jones canon that he co-directed. However every one I've seen so far is wonderful, from Honey, I Shrunk the Kids in 1989 to Hidalgo in 2004. To be fair, I haven't yet seen Jurassic Park III but even if it's awful it can't spoil a career full of high points like these.

Backing up Williams and Dunst on screen are people I only know a little like Jonathan Hyde, Bebe Neuwirth, Bonnie Hunt and Bradley Pierce. There's even Don 'No Soul' Simmons from Amazon Women on the Moon, David Alan Grier, as the beleaguered cop who gets caught up in all the chaos. The real star though is the game, what it means and the many special effects it gets to summon up, down to the fat little rhino who's always trying to keep up. The messages it has to give us are not incredibly deep ones but then it's a film for kids and they're both easy to understand and pretty meaningful at the same time. In other words, they're just right for this movie, just like everything else.

I'm happy to say it holds up today in 2007 to the standards I saw first time round in probably 1998 or so. I enjoyed every minute of it, even though I knew what was about to come at every step, and it fascinated my three year old granddaughter and kept her engrossed. That's what so many children's movies nowadays don't do. Either the kids love them and anyone over sixteen hates them with a passion, or they work for the adults but the kids don't get them at all. That's why those like this that work for everyone should be cherished and why they will be. I'm sure this will be a favourite for kids for the next few generations too.

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