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 key. Everything is unlocked now.
Cut to 1995. Wait, What? That’s 26 years later! And there are all new characters! Huh? We meet Judy and Peter Shepherd, who are moving into the abandoned Parrish home. Looks like Alan was never found and since then the place has become a ruin. The home is just a large empty space, parallel to their feelings about the world. Judy and Peter were recently orphaned after their parents died in an accident. Peter hasn’t spoken a word since the tragic event, except to Judy. Judy has a knack for causing problems at school. They’re both looking for a new start, a new beginning.
BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!
The drums start again, and eventually, they find the Jumanji game stashed in the attic. Once again, only children were able to hear the drums. They begin to play the game, unleashing crazy monkeys onto the world (they never looked real, even when I was ten). Peter rolls the dice—a five—which is the magic number needed to release Alan from the game. This is where Robin Williams enters in all his glorious hairiness. He tells them who he is and tries to find his parents, but realizes they died years ago.
We see what’s happened to the town since 1969—looks like a ghost town. After the shoe factory closed the town folded up. This is where we realize the game is bigger than just one person. It affects the entire world, therefore creating an alternate reality unless they finish the game, which will turn everything back to normal. Which means, it’s going to get worse before it gets better. This is key. The movie is implying that if you quit, you will face the consequences. If you stay the course, all will eventually be well.
Alan convinces a sheltered Sarah Whittle to help them finish the game they started 26 years ago. She still lives in the same town, even though the area has haunted her for decades. I always found this interesting, as if she was still waiting for Alan to return in a way.
After each roll, the scenarios become more intense. A stampede, deadly plants, and even a monsoon inside the house (which never made sense because the stampede had blown out an entire wall, but I digress…).
One of Alan’s rolls unleashes a hunter named Van Pelt. Now, I think it’s important to note that he’s played by the same actor who plays Alan’s father. VERY KEY. Van Pelt sees Alan as a nuisance; someone who squandered their potential. “Not good enough, Sonny,” he says when Alan tries to dispose of him. “Come back and face me like a man!” Van Pelt is the embodiment of how Alan perceives his father. He’s someone who is better than him, more powerful than him, and constantly seeing him as a nuisance.
Skip to the finale… lots of craziness happening… Alan rolls the dice, which trickles down an endless flight of stairs. Van Pelt has him in his sights, but seems to be irked. “I’m terrified, but my father says you should always face what you’re afraid of,” Alan says to him, which Van Pelt answers, “Good lad. You’re finally acting like a man.” It’s in THIS moment where Alan is no longer afraid. It’s taken 26 years to get to THIS POINT. Living in the jungle helped make him brave, but facing Van Pelt—his father—is the moment everything’s boiled down to. Van Pelt shoots his gun, but not before the bullet disappears and everything gets sucked back into Jumanji. The game is over! Whooooo!
Back in 1959! WHAAAAAT? Yah, 26 years back, and Alan and Sarah are in the living room again, sitting next to the game. You see, all those events existed in a different timeline, which was erased when the game was concluded.
Alan’s father comes home, and Alan immediately apologizes for the outburst earlier. He also admits to the conveyor accident earlier that Carl took the blame for. Already, Jumanji has changed him into a different person. A bolder person. The events in the game weren’t real, but all the memories and feelings were.
Alan and Sarah throw the game into a river, which bangs it’s drums until it sinks below the surface. There is a cool epilogue scene later where they’re both grown up and see Peter and Judy again in real life, and actually end up saving their parent’s life by telling them not to go on the vacation that would end up killing them. It’ also cool to see that Alan and Sarah are married and she’s pregnant; an indicator that he did eventually overcome the bullying from those boys.
Cut to a random French beach, and we hear the drums again. Two kids are walking towards the board game, which has washed on shore. OHHHHH NOOOOOO!
Ok, that’s a lot of info to ingest there, and I skipped a lot of parts, but what I wanted to mainly hit at is the purpose of the game. What is Jumanji? Why does it even exist? Is it even real?
Jumanji doesn’t just call only to children, but troubled children. Alan only heard the game’s calls twice: when he had just gotten beat up and when he had the fight with his father. It was in those moments where he wished his life was a different way. Jumanji offered him that, but definitely not in the way he hoped. It literally trapped him in the jungle for 26 years. But you know what… he was better off because of it. He learned how to be brave; selfless. He always had those tendencies inside of him, but never had the struggles to truly let them be released. He was a rich boy who always had everything, but felt like he had nothing. Jumanji wasn’t what he wanted, but what he needed.
I think the game is sort of an allegory for all the things that happen to us when we’re young that are out of our control. In those times, we roll the dice. In the movie, they literally do, knowing each roll is going to bring worse things upon them, but also understanding they have no other choice. There is an endgame, they just don’t know when. For Alan, it was a 26-year plan. For Peter and Judy, it’s all but a day, but that entire year they were without their parents. It’s different for all of them, yet through the game they share the same struggle, the struggle of getting through to the end, knowing that good things are waiting for them.
Growing up is a test. It’s waking up every day hoping you’re a little bit smarter and stronger than the last. But sometimes the only way to get through the hard times—the pain, the misery—is by facing them head-on. One of the character’s and themes in my new book talks about this a lot. I call it Just Eat Worms—it comes from a backstory about the character so I guess you’ll just have to read it! It may seem wrong, gross, and crazy, but sometimes you gotta just eat those worms and know that when you’re done you can eat the apple pie. It’s waiting for you; baking in the oven, but you gotta swallow every last bit from those nasty worms first. And there’s no cheating either, because life knows when you cheat and punishes you for it. In Jumanji, Peter tries to cheat, and gets turned into a monkey. Cheating in life is only cheating yourself.
Judy and Peter were in coast mode before Jumanji happened. They never had fully embraced their parent’s deaths, and instead were silent or lashed out at school. They weren’t actively trying to get better, but Jumanji forced them to. It made them work together and fight for survival, and ultimately, fully accept their parent’s fate. Towards the end of the movie, when Judy gets stung by a poisonous plant, Peter holds her and cradles her similar to how a parent would. “I wish mom and dad were here,” she says to him, really the first time we have seen any emotion from her regarding her parents. It’s no coincidence this scene comes minutes before the game is finally over. Where Alan needed to confront his father and erase fear, Judy and Peter needed to love theirs; accept their passing and move on.
Alan’s story is much more dire, because it not only involved Sarah Whittle, but the entire town. Jumanji was a lesson for him. He wanted to run away and be anything but a Parrish, but being trapped in the jungle for 26 years will make you want to be ANYWHERE but there. He was constantly living in fear before Jumanji, so when he was in the game, the world around him was amped up in every way. The fear was stronger, the loneliness was greater, and through it all, he learned he CAN get through it. He IS strong enough. There was always a sense of doubt within Alan. Can I admit I put the shoe on the conveyor? Can I really hang out with Sarah when I know those boys will pester me? Can I walk in my father’s footsteps and still retain who I am? All those doubts swirled within him, controlling his life.
Jumanji knows what you’re feeling. It’s weird to comprehend that a game knows what you feel, but you have to push a little bit of logic aside when we’re dealing with other dimensions and portals here. Perhaps whoever invented Jumanji designed it in a way to better the troubled kids of the world. And through the years it’s been passed down from broken child to broken child. They would never dare play the game again, but they can’t deny that they’re not better off because of it.
Things that challenge us in life are usually met with optimism and fear. We never know what’s going to happen or how long it’s going to take. But I know many people who have been through consequential times, and they will all say they are stronger because of it. It’s not something they’d ever want to do again, but because of it, their life is headed in a new, better direction.
The game acts like a What If? scenario, not much different from the alternate reality that George Bailey experiences at the end of It’s a Wonderful Life. Both things weren’t real but they did happen. Make sense? It’s like a lot of time travel movies where only the person who did the traveling has memories of both timelines.
Jumanji knows that children are more likely to seek adventure; to take risks. When we get older, every day our childlike instincts to dream and try new things die a little each day. Is the movie saying we need to be more adventurous? I think it’s more along the lines of don’t necessarily seek out crazy things to do, but if things get crazy, go through it instead of around it.
Jumanji calls to the wayward kids. It chooses them just as they choose to play the game. We may think we don’t have a choice in what happens to us, and yes, this is true for the most part. Many things that happen in our lives are not our fault. But the idea that we don’t have a choice is WRONG. Every day when we wake up we make a choice—to live. We actively say, “Yes, I’m alive today.” That means that we should accept whatever happens in the world we live in, because ironically, we CHOSE to live in it. The world has never been a forgiving place; a heavenly place where we would want to stay forever in. In the Bible, this is established right away. The world was something else but now it’s changed. Every day we make the choice to wake up and live and face whatever the world throws at us. We may not choose what happens to us, but we’ve chosen to be a part of this world.
But Jumanji KNOWS these kids can handle it. I don’t think the game ever wants these kids to end up dead and forgotten, it wants them to succeed. There are many moments where I felt the characters could have died or been destroyed by the game, but against all odds, they make it through.
It’s ok to be afraid. Alan says he was TERRIFIED when Van Pelt has him in his sights, but the difference was he faced his fear anyway. You can still be afraid in life, just don’t be afraid to be living it. Like Jumanji, if things start to get crazy, stick with those closest to you, and know that there’s a better end waiting once you get through.