Parents have a different experience of cinema going from the childless or ‘child free’: instead of the Art-Deco bar of the local art house, the cavernous spaces of the multiplex and a sense of having been magically transported to the United States as kids in baseball caps and clutching giant cartons of popcorn surge around the foyer. The film is likely to be Hollywood as well, and while in my academic teaching life the term ‘Hollywood’ conjures up dark visions of film noir, critically deconstructed Westerns and Hitchcockian degeneration, on my visits to the Holloway Odeon in North London it means over-the-top technology combined with reassuring comedy. Jurassic Park may have been an exception (though one that I thankfully missed), but The Mask and Jumanji offer high-octane energy, thrills and spills and everything coming out right in the end.
The Jumanji formula is familiar enough: there is a threat from without to the American Way of Life. The anti-communist science-fiction movies of the fifties were an earlier version; in films such as The Thing From Another World and Them, Americans were faced with life-threatening alien forces in the shape of giant ants or Martian vegetables feeding on human blood, physical metaphors that stood for the mental and spiritual threat of left-wing ideology. But although the perceived real threat (of communism) was represented by a fictional horror, the threat was still fictionally represented as real, and The Thing From Another World closed with the famous line, ‘watch the skies’—permanent vigilance was needed to thwart the Reds.footnote1
In Jumanji, by contrast, reality has disappeared. To understand this regressive move from fictional reality to fictional fiction, it is necessary to rehearse the plot—itself surprisingly complex and sophisticated for a movie aimed primarily at children. The story begins in 1969. A little boy, the son of a successful shoe manufacturer, is being bullied at school. His dad cannot communicate with him and does not understand his situation. Although they live in a wonderful New England colonial house, the child is unhappy. He unearths a mysterious board game, Jumanji, and he and his girlfriend—who seems strangely to be rather old for this relationship—begin to play. With every throw the game brings a new terror from the jungle—giant ants, a roaming tiger and
The story moves forward to the 1990s. Now idyllic small-town America presents a sorry picture. The shoe factory has closed down; after the disappearance of his son, the industrialist put all his energy and money into finding him, and, having failed, died more or less of a broken heart. There are homeless men on the street, huddled round fires lit in oil cans. There are graffiti, there is poverty and despair.
At this juncture, two new child protagonists appear. Orphans, whose parents have been killed in a car crash, they are being cared for by an oh-so-chic but brittle career-woman aunt. All three arrive at the former home of the shoe manufacturer and his family, and move into the run-down but still habitable mansion. The aunt is too busy to look after her charges properly, so, to amuse themselves, they explore the house. Lo and behold, in the attic they come upon the board game: Jumanji is about to wreak havoc again. Soon not just the house but the whole town has been set in uproar as herds of elephants and rhinos stampede through the streets, causing riots and looting, while a mischievous hoard of monkeys wreaks havoc on a smaller scale. The mansion is being destroyed by killer creepers and there is a tiger in the main bedroom.
But playing the game has also brought back the original little boy, now a thirty-something with a beard and staring eyes. Clad in what look like combat fatigues—a subliminal reference here to Vietnam vets?—he has survived all these years in the jungle red in tooth and claw. Soon they have tracked down his former girlfriend, still living in the town, and the four of them desperately dice against Jumanji in an effort to finish the game and thus end its reign of terror.
The story avoids any obvious racism in that the only human summoned up from the jungle by the game is not a black ‘savage’ but a white Edwardian trigger-happy game hunter, and the only black character in the story is a benevolent cop. On the other hand, the whole representation of the ‘jungle’ could not be more reminiscent of ‘darkest Africa’, and the contrast between the plagues of insects, creepers and dangerous animals and the leafy autumn suburbs of New England is stark.