End up like a dog that’s been beat too much
‘Til you spend half your life just covering up.
—Bruce Springsteen, “Born in the USA”
When I decided to write a post about Jumanji, the most important thing to do was figure out how the three pieces of the puzzle — the book, the first movie, and the other first movie — fit together. The second most important thing was to come up with a title.
Rejected titles for this post include:
Jumanji: Jungle Bookie
Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (Again)
Jumanji: Death Is Wild
Jumanji: Wild About Grief
Jumanji: In the Jungle, the Deadly Jungle
Jumanji: This Is How You Jumanji of What I Really Am
So, yeah, those were things I came up with in the shower (which is where I get all my great ideas).
Growing up, I was That Kid who loved being in a library, even during lunch hour. I devoured anything with a cover (or even no cover),. By second grade, I’d breezed through most of the Judy Blume and Beverly Cleary chapter books in the school and the public libraries. By late elementary school, I was pretty much over picture books…or so I thought.
The Polar Express came out when I was second or third grade, and the library always had a wait list to check it out because so many kids loved it. I thought it was pretty, but it didn’t really capture my attention. Then I read one of author Chris Van Allsburg’s previous books: Jumanji. And I couldn’t put it back on the shelf. Seriously, I checked it out, took it on a family trip to Austin (!), and tried to read it to my siblings and cousins (who did not care). It fascinated me that much.
I appreciated the story itself: simple, with a few moments of dry humor. But what completely ensnared my imagination was the series of illustrations. They were simple black-and-white sketches of a well-off family’s calm, genteel suburban home filled with animals literally tearing the place apart. The cover image alone featured a little girl horrified at the monkeys destroying her kitchen.
Jumanji the book isn’t a complex story. it’s the tale of two kids who make a small but terrible decision, and get out of it thanks to luck (Judy rolls a 12 and wins the game just before the volcano melts the house and the python reaches her). It ends with some neighbor kids — who sound far less competent — about to make the same small but terrible decision. Except for that last alarming detail, everything in the book ends just fine, and the world goes back to exactly how it was.
But anyone could tell it had the makings of a great movie — presuming that movie was all about the wild, wacky fun of rhinos running through your house and not, say, getting emotionally tortured by a violent board game well into adulthood. Right?
I was so excited when the movie version of Jumanji came out. I could not wait to see the craziness of the book with Robin Williams at the helm. It was going to be hilarious! The genie from Aladdin would fight a lion! Or something like that!
Then I saw the movie and…hooo boy.
Maybe I’m polling the wrong people, but I don’t know anyone who remembers this film fondly. It’s depressing. Really depressing. Basically, Robin’s character gets stuck in the Jumanji jungle for decades, slowly going close to insane as he literally fights for his life. Meanwhile, Alan’s friend Sarah (no relation to me), played by Bonnie Hunt, is so traumatized by watching Alan get sucked into the game — and by no one believing her — that she becomes a fractured person. While a bit cartoonish at points, her character is a startlingly honest portrayal of what trauma can look like years later. When two kids start playing the game and Alan returns, Sarah babbles about how people have told her for years that all of this never happened — to the point where she eventually believed them. It was so reminiscent of one of my teenage pop culture favorites: the Broadway musical Tommy (don’t hate; it was fantastic; we will discuss it at another point). Of Mrs. and Mr. Walker telling Tommy,
“You didn’t see it,
You didn’t hear it,
You won’t say nothing to no one
Ever in your life,
You never heard it.
How absurd it will seem without any proof!”
And then, there are the kids in Jumanji: Judy and Peter (played by Kristen Dunst and Bradley Pierce), who have the same names as the kids in the book…and two dead parents. They’re still reeling from their own loss when the suddenly have to fight for their lives beside Alan and Sarah.
If I had to sum up Jumanji the movie in emojis, it would be:
Looking back at it, I do not understand the tone of this film. Sometimes, it feels like a Jurassic Park (the original one) rip-off, with CGI animals everywhere. Other times, it’s reminiscent of The Blues Brothers, particularly the mall destruction scene. Other other times, it’s got ridiculous over-the-top laughz 4 kids; but it’s too scary and not-funny to be a kids’ movie.
I think the film could’ve been more lighthearted and fun had Williams played the role of a bewildered dad or uncle or babysitter stuck in the game with the kids. That would have aligned more with the spirit of the book: two kids (and a kid-like adult) suddenly in over their heads with a deadly and fast-moving game. But once you bring years of trauma into the narrative, especially with one character forced to believe she made up her experience and suffering for years as a result, this becomes a different story.
At the film’s end, just like in the book, everything ends up okay. Alan and Sarah are happy (and having a baby, which can I just say I am so tired of as a metaphor for a perfect happy ending; but we can get into that in another post). Dead Parents are back and fully alive, and Alan and Sarah even stop them from going on their fatal vacation, yay!
But after all of this…are we?
You know what really surprised me? That I loved Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle more than I can convey in words. I didn’t think I would even like it. I’m not a huge Kevin Hart fan and I’m lukewarm on Jack Black, though I’m good with the Rock (we’ll discuss my deep appreciation of the Fast and Furious franchise in a later post).
But it’s so unexpectedly charming, and it takes the Jumanji story in a direction that’s way more fun and much funnier than the Robin Williams movie. To summarize it: Four high school students from different cliques get stuck in detention, decide to play the weird video game console in the corner, and end up transported into another world. (Side note: That sounds like a great book!) The Rock plays super nerdy kid Spencer, Kevin Hart plays football star Fridge, Karen Gillian is quiet and kind-of-nerdy rebel Martha, and Jack Black plays wannabe Instagram star Bethany. The casting could’ve been played for dumb, over-the-top laughs throughout the film; but it ends up coming off as funny and endearing without being too ridiculous or embarrassing. (Though can we please stop portraying vultures as gross and evil? They are actually awesome and should be celebrated!) (On another note, I may be a little too attracted to Bobby Cannavale as the villain, except for, y’know, the bugs coming out of his ears.) 😱
Because the characters are in a video game, they get multiple lives, so the threat of death isn’t quite as intense, though it’s still omnipresent. They also get to try out being different people — just like growing up, amiright? Even if one of the people you have to be is someone that makes you immediately say, “Ew, hard pass.” You still have to work with it. But then you get to go back to yourself, ever the wiser while remaining young and cute. Man, if only real life had this option.
Now, the story still has some dark elements. One character’s been in the game for decades (though they’re not as emotionally devastated as Alan), and another is traumatized over the disappearance of said character. But those aren’t the main characters, so the story still ends up being more entertaining than depressing.
Also: DANCE. FIGHTING.
Again, I love this movie. So much so that it almost made me like Big Mountain’s version of “Baby, I Love Your Way.”
While I’m not sold on the preview of the Grumpy Old Men-style sequel coming out, I’ll still watch this one over and over. For someone who still looks back to her youth and gets overcome by regret, it’s a hopeful story. Life-affirming, even.
“I grew up in this. It’s out there that scares me.”
—Alan (Robin Williams) in Jumanji
Ultimately, what I think ties the two Jumanji movies together (and even the book, on a lesser level) is the concept of dying. Kids learn about death sooner or later; but dying is a much harder, scarier, and more painful thing to learn about.
In 2012, my grandmother died after a long battle with Alzheimer’s. My grandfather followed in 2017. Two strong, brilliant people, their memories and personalities slowly wiped away as if they were whiteboards.
At the end of last year, my dog — who I adopted from the pound 15 years ago — started having seizures. Medication was the imperfect answer…until I learned the seizures were being caused by a brain tumor. For four months, I watched the one thing I loved more than anything deteriorate. By May, she was so terrified and suffering that I made the hardest decision I’d ever made and euthanized her. My dog isn’t suffering anymore, but I will never, ever stop hurting from her end-of-life pain.
I’m not afraid of death. I’m afraid of dying. Of suffering. Of being a good person, of working hard, of eating right and living well, and still being slammed with suffering and disorientation at the end of life.
But life isn’t fair, is it? You only get one, and you never know whether the next turn is going to win the game or send you into quicksand.
As Spencer and Fridge say near the end of Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle:
Spencer: I can’t do this.
Fridge: What are you talking about?
Spencer: I can’t do this. Okay, who am I kidding? I’m not some adventurer. I’m not actually brave.
Fridge: Spencer, I just saw you hanging out of a helicopter!
Spencer: It’s a lot easier to be brave when you have lives to spare. It’s a lot harder when you only have one life.
Fridge: We always only have one life, man. Okay? That’s…that’s all we get. That’s how it works. The question is, is how are you going to live it? Which guy are you going to decide to be?
Which brings to mind another quote — one a friend sent to me in a card my junior year of college, which I still have to this day and which I still think about all the time:
[H]ave patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.
—Rainer Marie Rilke
The point is, you keep living.
You keep going, rolling the dice and moving along on the board. Because there’s always the chance you’ll end up trapped in or traumatized by the game, but hiding out in the jungle and playing it safe sounds awfully boring.
Besides, how else are you going to figure out if you know dance fighting?
Copyright 2019 – 2020, Sarah A. Ruiz & What the Kids Were Watching/Quail School Media. All rights reserved.