Figure 1 – Chris van Allsburg ©2011 Tim Pierce

It’s really weird to me that so many coincidences happen in my life. For only one tiny example: this week, while looking in a bin of old papers for something entirely unrelated, I found the unused sticker (Figure 2) from a movie in the column I had already planned to write! I picked this sticker (probably also have a poster too; I tend to glom onto those at conventions. As you’ve probably guessed, I’m a really big movie buff.) up at the freebie table from some convention in 1995—maybe Norwescon in Seattle, or wherever it was that year. (It’s been in SeaTac for a while.) Because the sequel/remake of Jumanji had just come out, I planned to watch both movies and then report on them.

Having now watched them (and also having watched The Polar Express for good measure), I’m ready to tell you what I think about them. I will concentrate on the movies for this column, as—to date—I’ve never managed to read a single book by Chris van Allsburg (Figure 1), although I remember that when my wife (the Beautiful & Talented Lynne Taylor Fahnestalk) was working at Greenwoods’ Bookstore on Whyte Avenue in Edmonton, Alberta, they were selling The Polar Express with a “sleighbell” attached. But that was back in 1990 or so. Please remember that I’m not a “film critic,” as I can only give a personal opinion on movies, not a “pronouncement from on high” about their worth. (Snark!)

Figure 2 – Jumanji sticker 1995

van Allsburg is a year younger than I, having been born in 1948; apparently after graduating from art school and working on sculpture (this information is either from Wikipedia or his own webpage), his wife saw his illustrations for some ideas he had and thought they’d make great children’s books. And so a great writer/illustrator of children’s books was born! To date, he’s published around 20 books, although only three have been made into movies (two of them Caldecott medal winners!). Those three are what I’d like to talk about today.

Figure 3 – Polar Express figures

The movie Polar Express was a full motion-capture computer-animated 3D movie directed, produced, and written by Back to the Future’s Robert Zemeckis, and starring Tom Hanks as most of the male characters! As you can see from Figure 3, they did a pretty good job of capturing his face—remember, this is over 20 years ago!—as The Conductor.

As far as I can find out, the protagonist has no name; he’s just called “The Hero Boy.” Although this book came out before Jumanji, the movie actually came out after Jumanji. Here’s the story (may include some spoilers, in case you haven’t seen or read it yet, so be careful):

The hero boy is on the cusp of not believing in Santa Claus; he’s at that awkward age where everything you read (in the World Book encyclopedia, for example) says the North Pole is devoid of life; your schoolfriends tell you “Santa Claus isn’t real, and you’re an infant for thinking he is,” and so on. He goes to bed on December 24, hoping he’s wrong, but still listening for the sound of sleighbells and looking out the window. At one point he thinks he hears them, but it turns out to be his parents, bringing home his kid sister; he jumps back into bed and pretends to be asleep. They tell each other that he’s at that stage where he may have “lost faith in the magic.”

He falls into an uneasy doze, but is awakened when the whole room starts shaking; he looks out the window, and there’s a full-sized steam locomotive with several cars in the middle of the street, and a conductor telling him that it’s the Polar Express, and if he wants to get to the North Pole, he’d better hop aboard! He dons his robe (tearing the pocket in the process) and runs outside to see!

At first he demurs—not believing–but then boards. He meets various characters, including a young African-American girl and a boy from the “wrong side of the tracks,” a know-it-all named Steve (hey, I was never *that* obnoxious), and a magical hobo. Through various adventures, including roller-coaster rides down rickety track at high speeds; a train sliding on ice, walking and skiing in deep snow on top of the train, and more—they finally reach the North Pole at five minutes to twelve. I won’t give it away here, but the key element is—you guessed it, a sleigh bell! Hero boy regains his belief in the magic, and all’s well at Christmas—even for the kid, Billy, from the wrong side of the tracks!

Considering it was the first all-digital full-length mo-cap animated feature and done over twenty years ago, it was quite spectacular—it was also released in IMAX, and I’m guessing some of it was even better in 3D (I haven’t yet seen it in 3D, even though I’m a big 3D buff and even have a 3D TV!) Of course, they had trouble with faces back then, and fabrics—and even hands grasping things; but all told, except for a slight tendency towards preachiness, it was a well-done movie and it didn’t bore me or put me off (preachiness does that sometimes) even as an adult. It cost about $170 million to make, and I think it grossed about four times that, so it was also successful. I’d give it a solid three-plus thingies: ¤¤¤+

Figure 4 – Outside of Jumanji Box

Now we come to one of the two main thrusts of this column: Jumanji. (Robin Williams, according to Wikipedia, said “Jumanji” is a Zulu word meaning “many effects,” and van Allsburg agreed with him. But there’s no citation proving that.) Although I will mention Zathura, the movie that came out after Polar Express, I won’t comment upon it here except to say that it’s basically Jumanji with the serial numbers filed off and a new paint job, as the saying goes. Notable mainly for the fact it’s got less CGI and more practical and miniature effects than Jumanji, and also has sparkly vampire girl, Kristen Stewart, in it. It was fun, and a solid three whoojies: ¤¤¤.

Back to the original Jumanji (I’m getting tired of typing this word; I think I’ll call it “J” for short from here on in! The second one I’ll call J:WTTJ!). Since the movie’s over 20 years old, I’m not going to worry about spoilers; I will, however, try not to throw any spoilers in for J:WTTJ.) It begins as a heavy iron-bound trunk, wrapped in ropes and securely locked, is being thrown into a hastily-dug hole a mile outside Brantford, New Hampshire, in 1869.

We then cut to Brantford in 1969, where Alan Parrish, young teen son of the richest man in town (and owner of the town’s main support, a shoe factory), is being chased by some teenage town toughs, who beat him up. He runs into his father’s factory, and accidentally destroys a model runner, similar to today’s, designed by African-American worker Carl over a five-year period.

The shoe also damages a machine, and Carl is fired. In the annex to the factory, which  is under construction, Alan finds the buried trunk in a dirt wall, and gets the game. Afterwards, Alan argues with his father—who leaves to give a speech—and talks a neighbour girl, Sarah, into playing J with him. The game warns (on the box) that you must play the game through or else. They discover that when they roll the dice, their game pieces (a white rhino for Sarah and a black elephant for Alan) move by themselves, and a cryptic, rhyming message appears in the centre….

Figure 5 – Open Jumanji Box

After one of his rolls, Alan is sucked into the game and disappears (the game says that someone must roll a 5 or 8 to release him) and Sarah is chased out of the house by some bats that appear after her roll. Cut to 1995, and the house is being purchased by Judy (Kirsten Dunst) and Peter Shepherd’s (Bradley Pierce) Aunt Nora (Fraser’s Bebe Neuwirth).The house, a very large mansion, is run down, and the realtor explains that it’s going cheaply because everyone in town thinks the owner, Sam Parrish (Jonathan Hyde), Alan’s father, killed him 26 years ago, cut him up and buried his body parts in the walls. Alan’s body was never found. Judy and Peter’s parents were killed in an auto crash during a ski trip to Canada, which is why they now live with their aunt.

They (Judy and Peter) find the game in the attic and, on their first two rolls, release a swarm of giant mosquitoes and a troop of red monkeys; they realize, after reading the instructions, that they must finish the game in order to return everything to normal!

On a subsequent roll of 5, Peter releases Alan (Robin Williams), now grown into an adult, from the game; and Judy releases a lion, which Alan traps in a bedroom. Various hijinks ensue: the mosquitoes are biting people in town and putting them in the hospital, the monkeys are causing havoc; after more rolls, a monsoon takes place in the house, a stampede of rhinos, elephants, zebras, and even pelicans heads out into the town, causing more havoc. Carl (David Alan Grier), now the town policeman, has his car and a police motorcycle stolen by the monkeys; and Van Pelt (also Jonathan Hyde) comes out of the game hunting Alan with a rifle.

The trio finds Sarah (Bonnie Hunt), now suffering from aftereffects of the game and Alan’s disappearance, and convince her to continue playing in order to finish the game. They do, and everything returns to normal—but back in 1969, Alan is returned to his teenage self—and does not do the things that led to his disappearance; he also keeps Carl from being fired. So his father does not use his fortune to find his missing son; Alan eventually marries Sarah and—cut back to 1995—the grown pair finally meet Judy and Peter, whose parents have moved to town, and were not/will not be killed in an accident. Peter and Judy tie a few bricks to the game box and throw it in the river!

I hadn’t seen this movie since it came out. For one thing, I remembered from the theatre that the effects were bad; the rhinos and elephants were badly matted in, and the spiders in the attic were badly done mechanical spiders. Guess what? In high definition, everything (okay, everything but the spiders) looks much, much better. In fact, I didn’t even mind the mechanical spiders that much. I enjoyed this a lot more than I had originally. Robin Williams’s performance wasn’t over the top, as some of his movies had been. I enjoyed Bebe N’s performance as well as those of Bonnie H. and Carl G. Dunst proved that, even at the age of 13, she was still not a very good actor. I will rate this one a four-doojy minus (which is better than a three-whoosit plus!): ¤¤¤¤-.

Figure 6 – Jumanji 2017 (Kevin Hart, Dwayne Johnson, Karen Gillan, Jack Black)

And now, we come to 2017 and Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (hereafter J:WTTJ). This is very interesting; it’s something like halfway between a sequel and a remake. It’s a sequel, because it almost literally picks up where the first one left off, and it’s a remake because it takes the original script and rewrites it almost completely. I’ll try not to give too much away here.

The movie begins with some people running on a beach; a corner of the game box is sticking out of the sand—obviously the game went down the river, out to sea, and back to the beach—still in Brantford, New Hampshire. The year is 1996, so a lot of time hasn’t passed since the game was dumped by Peter Shepherd. Alex Vreeke’s (Mason Guccione) father finds it, and gives it to his son, who is playing video games; Alex disses it as “just a board game” and throws it on the shelf next to his video console.

During the night, he is awakened by an eerie green light, and discovers that the board game has magically become a video console; he attempts to play it and (shades of Robin Williams!) is trapped in the game. His father becomes a cranky old man living in a disintegrating house and yelling at kids to get off his lawn (shades of David Gerrold! Just kidding, David! As Eddie Murphy says, “Nuttin’ but love!”)

Years later (I’m assuming 2017, and can’t remember if the movie said what year), four misfit kids—Spencer, Bethany, “Fridge” and Martha—are in detention for various school infractions. Spencer (Alex Wolff) is a nerd, who’s been caught doing school papers for “Fridge” (Ser’Darius Blaine), a large football player who “doesn’t have time to do them” because he’s concentrating on not getting cut from the team for scholastic reasons. Bethany (Madison Iseman) is a selfie-taking, self-absorbed self-described “hot girl” who can’t let go of her phone, even during tests; she and Martha (Morgan Turner) are almost antitheses of each other. Martha lacks self-confidence in her looks, and pushes people away so they can’t hurt her. She is sent to detention for dissing her phys-ed teacher.

In detention, they are told to clear out a storage room, but Spencer finds the video console and hooks it up to a monitor also found in the room; he convinces the others to forgo their cleaning duties—which they aren’t really doing anyway—and join him in the game. Yes, in the game; as they find out, they become the avatars they choose and are taken into the video game!

Spencer the skinny nerd becomes Dr. Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson), an archaeologist and explorer—the game pops up a character sheet to explain that he has no weaknesses and many strengths. Fridge becomes Franklin “Mouse” Finbar (Kevin Hart), a zoologist and weapons expert—he carries Bravestone’s weaponry (notably a boomerang) in his backpack. Finbar is the physical opposite of Fridge, because he’s short and not muscular. His weakness is cake.

Martha becomes Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan), a martial arts and dance-fighting expert. She’s kinda like Lara Croft—and immediately questions why she would be wearing shorts and a midriff-baring leather bra-top thingy in the freakin’ jungle! Her weakness is venom. And finally—

Bethany, the “hot girl,” becomes Professor Sheldon “Shelly” Oberon (Jack Black); archaeologist, paleontologist, cartographer, and male! His weakness is endurance… he’s portly, and has little to none.

The four meet Nigel (Rhys Darby), an NPC—a non-player character—who informs them of the rules. They find out that NPCs have very a very limited range of speech and action. They also meet Alex Vreeke, whose avatar is “Seaplane” McDonough (Nick Jonas), a pilot who’s been trapped in the game for twenty years. Seaplane has been living in a house built years ago by Alan Parrish (Robin W., remember?).

I also should note that parental guidance may be needed for a couple of spots; for example, where Bethany (Dr. Oberon) discovers that she (now he) has a penis. There’s a few minutes worth of somewhat subtle, somewhat overt jokes about that. (And one more subtle one later on.) And, of course, there’s a moral to the story, as there was in Polar Express; all characters learn something by the end of the film. But that’s not unexpected, is it?

I can’t tell you a heck of a lot more without spoilers. I can, however, tell you that against all expectations, I liked this one. Maybe not as much as the first J, but still a pretty fair “like.” Dwayne once again proved he has very good comedic chops; Black, for once, underplayed his character instead of chewing the scenery; and even Hart, who I usually find somewhat annoying, was annoying in a character way. (There are a number of “comedic” actors who just annoy the living crud out of me: Will Ferrell, Adam Sandler, David Spade, Chris Tucker (although he was perfect as Ruby Rhod in The Fifth Element—like I say, annoying in character!); it’s a quirk, if you like, that I can’t stand these people in most circumstances. Your mileage may vary.

I won’t give it a four-whatsit score, but in my opinion it scored a very strong three-plus thingamabobs: ¤¤¤+!

Can you please comment on this week’s column? I’d really appreciate it; you can comment here or in the several Facebook groups where I publish a link, even my own FB page. Don’t feel you have to agree with me to post a comment, either. I welcome opposing viewpoints as well as more information. My opinion is, as always, my own, and doesn’t necessarily reflect the views of Amazing Stories or its owners, editors, publishers or other columnists. See you next week!

(Editor’s Note:  Having managed to corral the red monkeys into another room of the house, I can assure you that “Brantford, NH” is a fictional town, although the Parrish Shoe Company was an actual thing in Keene, NH.  However, Keen is situated near the Connecticut river, on the opposite side of the state from the ocean.)

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