Navigating Netflix: Jumanji

Jumanji is tough nut to crack.

It’s one of those movies that’s simultaneously awful and awesome. The embodiment of the childhood fantasy of being able to jump into a board game and play it live, this 1995 Robin Williams vehicle did surprisingly well at the box office and is considered a classic by many fans who’ve spent years trying to interpret the game.

The story gets rolling in 1969 when Alan Parrish and his friend Sarah Whittle find a board game called Jumanji and start playing. The game comes to life and sucks Alan in, leaving his family and friends behind. Even though Sarah has the ability to save him based on the game’s rules, she abandons playing it and leaves Alan trapped. Cut to 26 years later, and Judy and Peter Shepherd move into Alan’s old house and pick up where Sarah had left off. Alan, now an adult, is freed as are the many jungle dangers of the game, including the murderous big game hunter named Van Pelt. The group realizes that the game has to be completed for everything to be set right and so the chaos continues.

Jumanji is a truly frightening game and has been the subject of much debate amongst fans of the film. The only thing more devastating than what this game is capable of doing to your life would be if Monopoly actually deducted money from your bank account.

This seemingly innocuous board game is more powerful than it appears. Jumanji has the ability to create life, both flora and fauna, as well as sentient life in the form of Van Pelt. It also created an entire reality presumably housed in a sub dimension that Alan survived in for almost three decades. Van Pelt looks like Alan’s domineering father, implying that the game has ability to read minds and customize itself according to the players it attracts. It actively reaches out to younger players with family problems. For Alan, it was a mix of his Father and school bullies. For the Shepherd children, it was the recent deaths of their parents. And in the ultimate display of power, Jumanji has the ability to reset time and space upon completion of the game.

To put it in more concise terms, Jumanji is an omni-powerful, potentially malevolent entity limited only by the rules it set itself or were thrust upon it.

Theories range from a demon or djin trapped inside the board game all the way to the game being some sort of test akin to the arcade game in The Last Starfighter. All that is known about the game is that nothing is really known. It can’t be destroyed, trapped or ignored, and can potentially do anything within the confines set by whatever being made it for indeterminate reasons. Frankly, supposition about the game in the movie is more interesting in the movie itself.

The mix of bad special effects and animatronics that typified the era combined with a mediocre story makes this movie a satisfactory watch at best. That being said, it’s still a lot of fun as long as you turn off certain part of your brain. And Jumanji is ripe for discussion and theorizing on the nature of game the movie is named after. Just don’t try to sleep after thinking about it too much.

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As an aside, I’m also concerned that Snakes and Ladders is a malevolent entity thanks to an incident in grade four at a zoo with a python and a ladder but that’s a story for another time.


Ian Goodwillie is a columnist for the Spectator Tribune. Follow him on Twitter at @ThePrairieGeek and on Tumblr at iangoodwillie.tumblr.com.