Friday, July 8, 2011

JUMANJI: Blu-ray (Tri-Star 1995) Sony Home Entertainment

Based on Chris Van Allsburg's popular pop-up children's book from 1981, Joe Johnston's Jumanji (1995) is a superb example of the children's movie that can be just as popular with adults. This is mostly because the screenplay by Greg Taylor, Jonathan Hensleigh and Jim Strain does not talk down to its audience, tiny tyke or seasoned film goer alike. It's a fantasy piece with comic undertones but like the best of its genre Jumanji understands that the most captivating and enduring fairy tales are the ones with a harrowing dark side. In this respect Jumanji is a very spooky film, occasionally veering dangerously close to the edge of light horror but never dropping off that artistic cliff side.
The story begins with an 1869 prologue where two boyhood chums are burying a chest that contains an ominous and primal drumbeat seemingly coming from inside. Flash forward to 1969 and we're in Brantford New Hampshire, an idyllic small town community whose sole economic stabilizer is a shoe factory run by Sam Parrish (Jonathan Hyde). Sam's son, Alan (Hann Byrd) is an inquisitive introvert. After he accidentally gets his friend Carl (David Alan Grier) fired for the jamming of an expensive piece of manufacturing equipment Alan incurs the wrath of the town bullies.
He is beaten to a pulp and finds his way – bloody and bruised - back home where his mother, Carol (Patricia Clarkson) sympathetically dresses his wounds. Sam however, does not share in his wife's coddling approach to child-rearing. Instead he decides to send Alan away to the private school he attended as a boy. After some words Sam and Carol head out to a party leaving Alan home alone with the board game he discovered earlier buried not too far from his father's shoe company. But the board game 'Jumanji' has a demonic side to it, one that Alan and his girlfriend Sarah Whittle (Laura Bell Bundy) regrettably discover when they roll the dice. Alan is sucked into the game leaving a terrified Sarah to flee a pack of rabid vampire bats that have infiltrated the chimney inside the Parrish home.
Fast forward to 1995. After the tragic death of their parents in a skiing accident in Canada, Judy (Kirsten Dunst) and Peter Shepherd (Bradley Pierce) are the wards of their loving Aunt Nora (Beb Neuwirth) who has decided to buy the old Parrish estate for their new home. The mansion has since fallen into a horrible state of disrepair. It also carries memories of happier times. The town of Brantford has also fallen on incredibly hard times thanks to the demise of the Parrish shoe company some years earlier.
Judy and Peter find Jumanji in the attic and begin to play, unleashing a motley crew of oversized mosquitoes, a lion and a pack of wild monkeys before a quirky roll of the dice releases Alan (now played by Robin Williams) from his nightmarish purgatory. At first Alan cannot believe he is free. But the return home is bittersweet. He has lost 23 years of his life inside the game. His parents are both dead and the town he once knew and loved as a boy has become a derelict for winos and street people. His father's factory is gone too; a burnt shell preyed upon by the homeless. Alan realizes the only way Judy and Peter will ever be free of the game is if they finish what he and Sarah started back in 1969. Believing that she has been delusional all these years, Sarah (now played by Bonnie Hunt) is reunited with Alan and introduced to Judy and Peter. The four take on the game, unleashing all manner of destructive forces including man-eating plants, a wild stampede or rhinos and elephants, and, a big game hunter named Van Pelt (also played by Jonathan Hyde) who enjoys hunting people.
As the game progresses the stakes become dire. Alan, Judy, Peter and Sarah narrowly escape being assassinated by Van Pelt during a raid on a nearby thrift store. They are subjected to a monsoon that nearly drowns them and are almost eaten alive by perilous vines that have invaded and taken over the Parrish mansion. For his attempt to cheat the game by fixing the dice Peter is punished by being slowly transformed into a wolf. Alan becomes trapped in the floorboards of the attic that have temporarily become quicksand, while Judy's turn unleashes an infestation of gigantic tarantulas. In her attempt to ward off the spiders from attacking Sarah, Judy is stung in the neck by the poisonous man-eating plant and dies in Peter's arms. It's Alan's turn to roll the dice. But before he can Van Pelt appears and tells him that the game is over. He has lost. Alan drops the dice in defeat. However, in doing so his dice rolls the winning number. Alan’s game piece finishes his round. He declares the word 'Jumanji' out loud, recalling all of the game's horrific aftermath to return to its porthole.
Alan and Sarah shut their eyes tight and hang on to one another as the game's destructive forces advance. But when they open their eyes again each is astounded to see themselves as children once again. Even more fitting, they have gone back to their own time. It's 1969. Alan's father comes into the study looking for the speech he's written and Alan realizes that he has the opportunity to set the record right. He tells his father that it was he and not Carl who broke the shoe machine at the factory earlier in the afternoon thereby sparing Carl his job. Alan and Sarah weigh Jumanji down with chains and toss it into a stream that will eventually carry all of its wickedness out to sea. Fast forward twenty-three years later and the outlook for Brantford is very different, thanks to Alan assuming managerial responsibilities at Parrish Shoe Company. Business is booming because of Carl's invention of the ‘sneaker’ and Alan has married Sarah. They are about to have their first child.
But even more advantageous for Alan and Sarah is the prospect of seeing Judy and Peter again. Having hired the children's parents to prevent them from taking their fateful ski trip to Canada Alan and Sarah are reintroduced to Judy and Peter who, of course, have no recollection of ever having met before. The extended Parrish family gathers around the piano to sing Christmas carols and as the camera pulls back from the mansion ablaze in holiday lights there is a sense that all is right in the world once again. But not so fast; for somewhere on a beach in France two new players are about to have their encounter with the nefarious board game washed ashore.
Jumanji ends on both a hopeful and yet a very ominous note. To be sure the real star of the film is its myriad of special effects made possible by the wizards over at Industrial Light and Magic. These SFX convincingly transform a seemingly quaint little hamlet into death-defying jungle terrain. But what really makes the film click is its casting. There's solid chemistry between Robin Williams and Bonnie Hunt as well as between the adults and the children in the story. Kirsten Dunst gives a rather tragic performance as the elder Shepherd child who has buried her grief with constant lying and pretend until the game convinces her that reality is infinitely more terrifying than make-believe. The script is fast paced and keeps the tension alive, even escalating it during the last third of the film when all appears to be lost. Finally, there's James Horner's brilliant score that augments the nightmarish aspects and adds yet another dark layer to the story. In the final analysis, Jumanji is a thrilling adventure yarn that will appeal to children of all ages. It's good fun!
Sony Home Video's Blu-ray is exquisite. Colors are bold, deep and vibrant. The overall characteristic of the image is darker than its DVD incarnation, but that's as it should be. Fine detail is realized throughout. Film grain is present but appears as grain should and not as digitized grit. The audio is a new 7.1 DTS master and really gives the rear and side channels of one's sound system a dynamic workout. Extras are jam packed carry-overs from Sony's previous issued Deluxe DVD presentation and include several featurettes on the making of the film. There's also a theatrical trailer and two diverse audio commentaries that ad much to one's enjoyment of the film. Sony adds a Blu-ray live feature to this disc but you have to be plugged into the internet to appreciate it. Bottom line: Jumanji on Blu-ray is a definite keeper.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)

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