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Jumanji and the Secrets of Adolescence

My best friend’s birthday is three days before mine. Lucky dog. He constantly reminds me every year. When we were young—notably in elementary school—we used to combine our birthday parties into ONE giant one. As a young kid, you automatically have to invite every kid in your class over for the party, even the kids you never talk to, that way you don’t create any so-called favorites. Except for the girls, though, because ewe, right? What this means is lots and lots of presents. For some reason, parents of young kids feel obligated to buy ridiculous presents for you. I got some of my best Lego sets at those birthday parties. Around seventh grade, I remember banking about $100 (an extreme amount of money at the time) and having no clue what to do with so much money!

In 1995, my birthday was slightly after the release of the movie Jumanji, and I was dying to go. I was big into the Star Wars and Indiana Jones type adventure movies, and Jumanji looked like another adventure I wanted to go on. I knew it was done by the director of Honey I Shrunk the Kids, so I was intrigued. Also, I was in the destruction age, where explosions and madness in a movie were what I sought. I was the kid who spent a week building a lego set so I could spend a miraculous minute destroying the entire thing. And boy, was it glorious.

My friend and I invited all the guys to our local theater for the premier. My mind was blown: the special effects, the crazy scenarios that were reminiscent of playing a video game, Robin Williams being serious? It all clicked for me. When it came out on video, it was one of the first VHS tapes I bought with my own money. Later on, I got it on DVD; no blu-ray yet but it’s on Netflix streaming so I’m doing just fine. I try to watch it every now an again—it’s one of the few movies from my childhood that holds up just as well today.

But what does it all mean? Is it just mindless special effects? What’s with those DRUMS? Let’s sort of recap the plot and see if we can figure out if there’s more to it under the surface.

The movie starts out with a flashback scene in 1869 and establishes a mystery. Two boys are burying some chest when it suddenly begins to call to them with the sound of banging drums. The boys are clearly frightened and in a hurry. One of them asks what will happen if someone digs it up, and the other boy’s response is, “May God have mercy on his soul.”

Quite the cheery opening there, but so far two things have happened that are noteworthy. The chest CALLED to them, notably in a time when they were afraid. It wasn’t something they actively were seeking. And second, there are no adults around helping these two boys, so it’s assumed that whatever happened only happened to these children. Obviously, I’m making these notes after seeing the movie a million times, but these two things will be important later on.

Flash to 1969, and we see our main character—Alan Parrish—walking around his father’s shoe factory. He converses with Carl Bentley—a worker—who shows him a brand new shoe he’s been working on that will shape the future. Alan casually observes it and sets it on a conveyor, which turns on without his knowledge, and gets jammed because of the shoe. Alan sees that something is wrong, but instead of taking the blame, he walks out of the factory, and Carl covers for him, seeing his beautiful invention turned into crushed up junk.

Outside, Alan gets picked on by a bunch of bullies. Turns out he’s got the hots for one of their girls, Sarah Whittle. He lets them punch him and trash his bike instead of fighting back. Right off the bat, we’re getting a major wimp vibe from Alan.

Then, the drums… We know they signify something evil because of the early scene. Alan’s intrigued and follows the sound to a construction site, and finds an old board game hidden in the dirt. The drumming stops, and what’s really interesting, is none of the workers around him heard it. We could say it was because the site has too much noise going on, but Alan was able to hear the drums way outside of the construction zone. This is the first time we are clearly shown that the drums can only be heard by children.

Later at dinner, we see how outrageously wealthy his family is. Alan lives in an enormous mansion, one which seems to dwarf his own ideals. He doesn’t seem to fit in with his family, who has owned the shoe factory for a long time. To make matters worse, his father springs the news that he has enrolled him into the Cliffside School for Boys, which also has a dormitory hall named after their family. This is the breaking point for Alan. People hate him because he’s a Parrish, and Cliffside is just another place where he can’t escape his family’s name. He blows up at his dad, just as his parents storm out of the house. Alan rips up the Cliffside paper, packs his bags to run away from home, and is about to open the door when Sarah Whittle shows up. She apologizes for the altercation earlier with the boys. BOOM! BOOM BOOM! The drums bang again, and Sarah hears them along with Alan. They sit down to play the game he found, thinking no big thing of it.

The rules of the game are simple. A game for those who seek to find a way to leave their world behind. This game is not for the average adventure seeker, or for the person who is happy with their every day life. This game is for the broken, desperate people looking for a way out.

When they start to play, things start to happen, and by things, I mean bats appear out of nowhere and Alan gets sucked into the board game. This is the first real WTH moment in the film, but it’s important for the audience to realize that Jumanji isn’t just a game, but a place; another realm or world only accessible through this game. In a way, the game is like a portal, and the kids are the k