(Joe Johnston, USA, 1995)


On the release of Joe Dante's inspired fantasy Gremlins (1984), there was a minor public kerfuffle about the possible effects of this movie on the impressionable minds of young children.

Is it seemly to expose kids to such a merry riot of looting, burning, pillaging and general destruction by funny little demons who themselves resemble naughty children?

Dante and his collaborators had, however, buried a sure-fire alibi in the film, and educational psychologists duly spelt it out for the rest of us. Yes, the bad gremlins are naughty kids; but there's a good gremlin too, and he helps to overcome the pack. And besides, the film is a fairy tale, a cautionary, moral lesson – warning children (and possibly adults too) to steer clear of dangerous, unknown forces.

Watching Jumanji, another fantasy film for children, brought back to me this nagging, unresolved debate. Being a fervent advocate of seemingly innocent popular movies with subversive anti-social messages, I treasured the destruction in Gremlins more than the pious lesson tacked on to the end. And I suspect that most audience members, young or old, reacted favourably to these same anarchic thrills.

Jumanji is a modern Pandora's Box fable. A young boy, Alan (Adam Hann-Byrd), finds an ancient board game with magical properties. Within two throws of the dice, he has been sucked into the dark recesses of a primeval jungle (which, tantalisingly, the film never shows us), and African bats have chased his young female companion, Sarah, out the door.

Cut to twenty-six years later: two parentless children, Judy (Kirsten Dunst) and Peter (Bradley Pierce) re-find the Jumanji board, and continue the game. Alan reappears in the form of Robin Williams. More crazy animals fly, scramble or stampede out the door to terrorize the small town community. Only with the now hopelessly neurotic Sarah (Bonnie Hunt) tracked down and persuaded to finish the game can all these terrors be negotiated.

There are pleasant, time-travelling echoes of Twelve Monkeys (1995) in this fanciful story – and there are even monkeys in it, computer-animated creatures who are the most gremlin-like of all the film's apparitions. Massive doses of gleeful misbehaviour, social chaos and destruction of property fill the movie – including highly politically-incorrect allusions to the LA riots.

This is a simple but expertly mounted fantasy, well-orchestrated by director Joe Johnston (Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, 1989). The influence of computer games on the narrative is obvious: each time the dice is thrown in a different room of a mansion, unleashing strange beings and extravagant physical turbulences.

Beyond the Gremlins echoes, more conventional elements (a father-son relationship, a boy overcoming his fear) recall the NeverEnding Story films. But not even this soppy stuff can entirely dilute the tang of subversive fun that asks to be savoured in Jumanji.

MORE Johnston: Hidalgo, Jurassic Park III, October Sky

© Adrian Martin March 1996

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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