I blame Robin Williams for my early fascination of rhinos. The movie that did it, the film that forever sealed an undying passion for the animals was Jumanji, and recently I got the chance to watch the film again after a ten year hiatus. What struck me was, despite the fact that the film was just a quasi-science fiction/fantasy narrative involving a homicidal board game that summons deadly animals and perpetuates the stereotype of the “Dark Continent,” the film is actually an amazing study on the relationships that exist between fathers and sons.
I’ve written this numerous times, but as a young man I had a damn hard time spending long hours outdoors. You see when certain species of trees make love they tend to do it by releasing spores into the surrounding atmosphere. The small particles match with the opposing gametes and produce baby trees, and this activity tended to take place in my nostrils reducing me to a 100 pound infant groaning between the vast evacuations of snot. (Oh my god, that’s so gross, like seriously, I just read this to hear about Jumanji dude, get to the animals and shit). Well being inside and unable to really participate in sports I had a lot of time on my hands. I wish I could say that I spent my precious youth reading and developing my mind so that I would one day shape the world, but I actually spent most of it watching movies, playing video games, and drawing/plagiarizing the comic books from the Captain Underpants series.
Out of the collection of VHS tapes and yes I am that old shut the fuck up, there were at least three films starring Robin Williams: Mrs. Doubtfire (which was my favorite), Hook (which actually scared the living dickens out of me with the Boo-Box scene), and finally Jumanji which I absolutely adored because it had rhinos. Now when you’re a kid you just watch the film for the animals and really that’s your experience of the film. It’s all just a lead into “What’s going to come out of the board game next?” In this way it would be difficult to really find a redeeming value in the movie, were it not for Robin Williams and his performance.
If you haven’t seen the movie I’ll briefly describe the plot and hope that you still aren’t judging me for having owned VHS tapes…you’re still judging me aren’t you?
Alan Parrish is the son of a wealthy shoe CEO, not kidding, and discovers a board game after he hears a tribal drum leading him to it. One night after he and his father have a fight he plays the game with a friend, who happens to be a pretty girl he likes, and gets sucked into the board game. Twenty-six years later a woman buys the old Parish place and moves in with her niece and nephew, Judy and Peter, who have recently lost their parents to a car crash in Canada. One morning they hear drums coming from their attic and discover the Board Game Jumanji. They begin to play and after being attacked by giant mosquitoes and homicidal monkeys they bring Alan Parish and a male lion back from the game. While Alan has no interest in playing the game they discover that in order to finish the game and return all the animals back they have to finish it. What follows is then Alan, Judy, Peter, and Alan’s old girlfriend Bonnie Hunt, I mean Sarah Whittle, whose played by Bonnie Hunt, trying to finish the game and set their world back in order.
I’m not really interested in describing whether or not the film is realistic, I’m biased by nostalgia and an undying love for Robin Williams who plays Alan Parish and is currently becoming a meme. What concerns me is that I’ve seen this film well over a dozen times and every time I watched the film I missed something important.
During one of Alan’s turn he gets this message:
Alan Parrish: [in terror] “A hunter from the darkest wild / Makes you feel just like a child.”
Sarah Whittle: What is it?
Alan Parrish: [Whisper] Van Pelt.
Just typing this still sends a shiver over me and I’m not just writing that. Out of the monkeys, the mosquitoes, the spiders (that I actually think are pretty damn cute), the crocodiles, the stampedes, etc., Van Pelt, a big game hunter—a.k.a. somebody whose masturbated to Hemingway novels every night since they were twelve and thinks shooting animals in Africa is fun—is the most terrifying aspect of the whole film. It’s easy to miss him as anything other than the quasi-racist animalia that erupt from the board game, but time has a way of bringing new meaning to old experiences.
You see the character Van Pelt is played by Johnathan Hyde, an actor who also happens to play Alan’s father when the character is a young boy. This is significant because Alan and his father have a strained relationship that’s established early in the film when Alan’s father doesn’t take his son’s bullying seriously. Alan is afraid to stand up and speak honestly to his father, and his old man is caught in that “Masculine façade” where emotions don’t come easy but you still convey the rhetoric where there’s much expected of you. Alan rejects his father and winds up stuck in the jungle for twenty-six years. It’s hard to miss this fact, much like it’s hard to miss Hyde playing Alan’s father and tormentor. The entire film upon inspection becomes a kind of veiled Oedipus Complex: the young man must overcome his fear of the father and stake out new territory before he can call himself a man.
But if I look at another passage from the movie this is becoming more and more obvious:
Alan Parrish: What, are you crying? You don’t cry, all right? You keep your chin up. Come on, keep your chin up. Crying never helped anybody do anything, okay? You have a problem, you face it like a man.
[Peter continues to cry and Alan realizes what he just said]
Alan Parrish: Hey, hey, I’m sorry, okay?… Twenty-six years buried in the deepest darkest jungle, and I still became my father.
I know you came here for a review about your childhood, but I hate to tell you this, your childhood is dead. Men of my generation are entering the period where manhood is becoming more and more of a concrete identity. The word men may not mean what it did ten or twenty years ago, but by the time you’re in your late twenties you begin to realize that dicking around and sowing your wild oats, for those of you who got the chance to do that, is coming to an end and people are beginning to depend on you now. As such the only question worth a damn is: can I call myself a man, and what on earth does that actually mean?
Is being a man about growing facial hair, drinking beer, and having an educated opinion about whether the Cubs will go all the way this year (they won’t, it’s the Cubs after all), or is being a man more abstract?
Alan offers up one idea at the close of the film when Van Pelt emerges with a gun fixed on him:
Hunter Van Pelt: [leveling his gun at Alan] End of the line, Sonny Jim. Game’s up. Start running.
Alan Parrish: [as Sarah runs into the room] … No.
Hunter Van Pelt: Aren’t you afraid?
Alan Parrish: I’m terrified. But my father says you should always face what you’re afraid of.
Hunter Van Pelt: [chuckles] Good lad. You’re finally acting like a man.
[aims his gun at Alan] Any last words?
Alan Parrish: [Alan looks down and notices his game piece moving to the end of the board, after which the word “Jumanji” appears, reads it quietly:] Jumanji.
Hunter Van Pelt: Eh?
Alan Parrish: [slightly louder] Jumanji.
This idea of challenging your fears, standing your ground, and not backing down is one of the first lessons of manhood I received as a young boy and I didn’t even realize I was learning it. As the years have continued, with no ego here I promise, I have been given plenty of opportunities to stand my ground in what I believed in, terrified that my actions would be thought childish or ridiculous, but still I stand.
In hindsight the film Jumanji leaves me conflicted, for while I will admit the film remains one of my favorite movies of all time, there is an embedded racism to the film. A group of white people, rich white people, play a board game that summons up Big
game animals from the so-called “Dark Continent” that try to kill them. If you’re unfamiliar with this idea, the term “Dark Continent” originated during the height of imperialism, when Europeans nations were carving out territories in Africa for themselves. Since Europeans were unaccustomed to the climate, ecology, and general terrain of Africa, and because there existed in its lands animals they had never experienced before, many Europeans began to colonize the continent, in the literal sense with their physical presence, but also symbolically with their fears. Africa was a continent populated by savages that lacked any reason, for what kind of people chose to live like animals in such a land? Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, a novel that has in recent times come under scorn by many African literary theorists, perfectly demonstrates this anxiety. Africa for centuries has been a place where white people have been allowed to exercise their imagination and willpower over the land and people, creating a negative rhetoric that still hounds Africa to this day. But let me return to my original point, there is a conflict when a group of white rich people gather to play a game where African beasts torment them, destroying their house, and instilling chaos upon their small New England town. You may think I’m reading too much into this, but there again I return to the idea of Van Pelt. Van Pelt isn’t just a big game hunter, he hunts human beings for sport. The continent of Africa leaves so little room for challenge that Van Pelt has been given free rein to indulge in his darkest nature, hinting at the idea that Africa corrupts the minds of men, infecting them with its darkness.
But it’s a Robin Williams movie, and those cute little monkeys you protest.
Before the reader gets the idea that I believe Jumanji to be a racist film with no endearing qualities it must be understood that in some ways, many ways, it can be seen as a racist film. I’ve addressed this issue before when I discussed John Wayne’s lovely comments concerning African Americans in Playboy. Idealizing the past, or people for that matter, is dangerous, because it will only promise you disappointment. Jumanji will always remain one of my favorite films, not simply for the nostalgia, but also because of Robin Williams. The man gave a performance that speaks to me because it was, again, about the relationship between father’s and sons.
I’m not sure if a woman will ever understand the complicated nature of this relationship, but hopefully my regular male readers will agree that it’s complicated. (Every woman just opened a bottle of wine and said to their computer/tablet screens “let me tell you about my mother buster”). You vie for place and position, yet you always feel like you’ve never accomplished enough. I can only speak for myself, and please do not get the impression that my father is some kind of domineering tyrant. My father always inspired me to become the man I wanted to be. I wouldn’t want to be anything thing else which is an honorable man. But no matter what the defining emotion of sons is a feeling of inferiority. There’s a drive to prove to your father that you’re a man, but you don’t want to push too far less you displace him. A son wants only to know that his father is proud of him.
[Alan and Sarah have finished the game. Sam reenters the house]
Samuel Alan Parrish: Forgot my speech notes.
Alan Parrish, 1969: [runs up to Sam and hugs him] I’m so glad you’re back.
Samuel Alan Parrish: I’ve only been gone 5 minutes.
Alan Parrish, 1969: [crying] It seems like a lot longer for me.
Samuel Alan Parrish: I thought you told me you were never going to talk to me again.
Alan Parrish, 1969: Whatever I said, Dad, I’m sorry.
[They hug again]
Samuel Alan Parrish: Oh, Alan, I was angry, OK? And I’m sorry, too. Look, you don’t have to go to Cliffside if you don’t want to. Let’s talk it over tomorrow. Man to man.
Alan Parrish, 1969: How about father to son?
Through the course of his career, and I intend to write more about it in later essays, Robin Williams would often play the part of a father, either symbolically or physically. This figure is crucial in our society, for the father will always be the figure that tries to impart wisdom of how the world works so that his children will be prepared when they enter the real world. The defining character of the men he played was of someone trying to give and inspire those who are below him. Whether it be Dead Poet’s Society, Millennium Man, Night at the Museum, Good Will Hunting, The World According to Garp, or even Jumanji, Robin Williams continually tried to be a spiritual father. He offered an idea, and explored the realities of fatherhood through his films. That’s the legacy I’ll write of the man.
My reader doesn’t require my validation, only the incentive. Jumanji may not be a masterpiece, but it does entertain and even provides a glimpse of deeper meaning for the audience to appreciate.
All right, I know you’ve been dying for this, so here it is, the best line in the movie:
Sarah Whittle: You just saw three monkeys go by on a motorcycle, didn’t you?
Judy Shepherd: Yeah.
Sarah Whittle: Good girl.
You might also want to remember that should you find yourself in quicksand, you get out before you roll the dice, lest you become bait for adorable spiders.
Dawwww, look at that sweet wittle face.