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Pop Culture Rewind Jumanji: Playing with Lives










So says the inside of the Jumanji board game. Such a description promises a game that would absorb the players' attention, making them forget about their troubles in reality. But Jumanji takes a different spin on this, a more literal spin.

Jumanji was first released in 1995 and follows the story of two kids, Alan Parrish and Sarah Whittle, as they start playing the sentient board game after which the movie is titled. The game is eerie from the start; the film begins in 1869 with two children, Caleb and Benjamin, in the night, desperately attempting to bury a chest in the middle of a fog-shrouded wood. Beneath the mound of dirt, you can hear the hallmark drumming of the film boom-boom-boom-boom, boom-boom-boom-boom…

One century later, Alan is drawn to the burial site by those drums, digging up the chest and discovering Jumanji. Jumanji draws Alan and Sarah in, forcing them to play the game. The game pieces are stuck to the board, and the drop of the dice by a player is considered a roll and the pieces move on their own. On an unlucky roll, Alan is sucked into the game, that is, literally sucked into the board game, the alternate world of Jumanji, where he will stay until another play rolls a five or an eight. Alan thus remains lost to the world, stuck in the Jungle of Jumanji for 26 years until two new players, Judy and Peter Shepherd, join the game when they discover it upon moving into Alan's old house.

The rest of the movie is the stuff of nightmares, or at least the nightmares of 10-year-old me. With each roll of the dice, a new element of Jumanji is brought into the real world, whether it be fast-growing vines with purple flowers that shoot poisonous barbs or yellow ones that eat people alive, giant mosquitos, monsoons, quicksand, or a terrifying hunter, Van Pelt, who is set on killing Alan. But is this just a fantasy adventure film meant to scare its viewers, or is it something more?

Board games are meant to be harmless fun and entertainment, a way to pass the time, and engender friendly competition. But in Jumanji, the game is real. The game thinks. It effectively pits Jumanji against the players, bringing to life real dangers that seem to be bent on killing the players. Suddenly, the game becomes a matter of survival. But why?

One of the themes running throughout the film is about 'being a man.' When being bullied by some other kids, Alan's father says to him: "If you are afraid of something, you have got to stand and face it." A similar line is repeated back to him when running away from Van Pelt, who shouts, "You miserable coward. Come back and face me like a man!" Alan then finds himself using this line to a crying Peter after being turned into a monkey as punishment for cheating: "If you have a problem, you face it like a man." Following this thread, the terrifying game can be seen as a challenge for adolescents entering adulthood, facing their fears and overcoming them.

But how does Jumanji change with the remakes? Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle was released in 2017, and it was not an actual remake of the original but rather a continuation. When the board game is rediscovered in 1996, it discovers that it is no longer relevant and that video games have replaced board games, and so it evolves. When teenager Alex Vreeke starts playing, Jumanji sucks him into the game, similar to Alan Parrish. But in this version of the game, it must be completed in Jumanji, a virtual world in which you are only given three lives, and after that, you are dead. But Alex is only one player amongst five, and he cannot complete the levels without the other players. He then becomes stuck in the game for 21 years until four other teenagers, Spencer Gilpin, Fridge Johnson, Bethany Walker, and Martha Kaply, stumble onto the game and get sucked in. They must complete the levels of the game, completing a quest and ending the game.

In this film, the players want nothing more than to leave, agreeing to destroy it upon its completion. They are naturally horrified at being transported into the game and into the characters' bodies within it. They are terrified and uncomfortable in their new skins, but as they adapt to the new world, they learn the value of their roles and strengths amongst a team. Only when they are down to their last life, do they become fearful for their actual lives again.

Interestingly, Jumanji: The Next Level, released in 2019, follows this film and is only made possible because Spencer misses the power he felt as his character in the game. He feels he does not fit into his world and seeks out a better feeling in another world, repairing the game while inadvertently bringing new dangers.

There was something less terrifying about these two films from the first. Maybe it was just the simple fact that I watched them when I was older. Or perhaps it was something more. Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle and Jumanji: The Next Level offer an interesting, if not an over-talked-about commentary about the dangers of video games. The conjunction of these two films touches on gaming disorders where players can confuse the world in the game with their reality. While gaming is usually just a momentary distraction from reality, for some gamers, an addiction can form where they desire to be more in the game or start seeing things from the game in their reality.

But perhaps this transformation from a board game to a video game detracts from the scare factor. While it makes sense to change Jumanji to a video game for modern audiences, it is familiar to all of us, and we know that the screen will keep us separate from the gaming world and the dangers it encapsulates. Thus, the second two films capitalise on a line uttered by Sarah in the first film: "What if I get stuck in the game?" But in the first film, this is a real fear, a situation of isolation and displacement, while in the video games, you are at least with other people. Furthermore, the fact that Spencer seeks Jumanji out in The Next Level normalises this worldly displacement. The other players, more or less, voluntarily go into the game and have a rough idea of what is in store.

In the original, however, Jumanji compromises your reality. The board game made the familiar unfamiliar. It transformed your safe and predictable world into a dangerous one on the verge of destruction. Once you've completed the video game, you are transported back into your safe world. This game only affects those that play. But after the board game is over and all the elements of Jumanji are sucked back in, and your world is once again safe and predictable, anyone who plays it can rerelease them, compromising your safety again. Your actions don't just affect yourself but the people around you.

Across all three of these films, is the theme captured in the description of the game, perpetrated through the real-life threats that Jumanji confronts the players with: you cannot escape your own reality.




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