Relying on some tried-and-true horror conventions, “Jumanji” may prove to be more frightening than thrilling for the young crowd that is its intended audience. A grim fairy tale about a board game with supernatural powers, the film unleashes an arsenal of special effects that are dazzling to the eye but often a shock to the senses. A simple story, breathtaking visuals and name cast will provide an initial draw, but the picture falls short of achieving the magic necessary to transform it into a tale with enduring appeal or propel the film to blockbuster status.
Opening in a quiet New England town in 1969, the tale unfolds when young Alan Parrish (Adam Hann-Byrd), the scion of a shoe manufacturer, discovers a buried game on a construction site. He and a friend begin to play Jumanji, a jungle-themed adventure.
From the first roll of the dice, it’s evident that this is no ordinary amusement. Its board markers move by their own volition, and cryptic messages appear from its crystal ball-like centerpiece. The first toss evokes a bevy of African bats, and after Alan flings the cubes, he disappears, sucked into the vortex of the tiled diversion.
The scene abruptly shifts to the present. Nora (Bebe Neuwirth) has bought the now run-down Parrish estate and moves in with Judy (Kirsten Dunst) and Peter (Bradley Pierce), her orphaned niece and nephew. The restless drums of Jumanji literally beckon, and the two youngsters dust off the seemingly innocent trifle and begin to play. They summon a clutch of giant mosquitoes, a man-eating lion and a jungle wild man who turns out to be the long-absent Alan (Robin Williams).
The opening section is an anxiety-raiser, as the young pair are thrust into mortal danger without a safety net. Unlike the characters in “Indiana Jones” sagas — which are an obvious inspiration –“Jumanji’s” protagonists are untutored survivalists pitted against a vengeful Mother Nature.
Williams emerges as a leavening agent for the proceedings. A captive of the jungle game, Alan has survived physically, but emotionally is a sort of wild child. The trio realize that the only way to undo the havoc is to complete the game. That means tracking down the adult Sarah Whittle (Bonnie Hunt), the girl who went batty with young Alan back in 1969.
With each roll of the dice, an elaborate set piece is initiated, involving a bygone big-game hunter, an animal stampede, lethal plants, natural catastrophes and the like. They are inventive and gripping.
What’s missing is a soul for this mechanical marvel. The script, based on a kid lit book by Chris Van Allsburg, cozies around the primacy of the family without developing that theme. So one’s left with the not very inspiring credo “Always finish the game” or, “Never leave undone what you have started.” The sentiment is dwarfed beside the computer-generated wonder of charging rhinos, elephants and zebras, monkeys that drive motorcycles and a monsoon and flood that envelop the decaying Parrish manse.
Though it doesn’t quite reach the level of chaotic fun or develop more than a perfunctory story, “Jumanji” is blessed with a winning cast. In addition to Williams’ heartfelt, vulnerable performance, Hunt elicits humor and pathos as a wounded soul. Dunst and Pierce are an engaging pair who sidestep the saccharine abyss young performers are too often forced to inhabit.
Director Joe Johnston has an adroit style that well serves the demands of a saga constructed in the fashion of a Rube Goldberg creation. The screenplay, however, denies the film a solid foundation. “Jumanji” is diverting in a splashy , eye-catching manner, but is about as substantive and durable as filigree.