Friday, October 26, 2012

Jungle Love (Oh, Ee, Oh, Ee, Oh!): Ten Horrifying Consequences of the Jumanji Universe

I like Robin Williams probably more than I should, and probably more than he deserves. He's one of those actors that shares a soft spot in my heart with people like Martin Short, Nicholas Cage, and Steve Martin, whose obvious, repeatedly demonstrated talent is only equaled by the amount of shitty, shitty movies they've chosen to appear in. In 2009 for instance, Willaims somehow managed to star in both my favorite movie of that year (World's Greatest Dad) and my absolute least favorite movie of that year (Old Dogs). He seems to spring from terrible performances to amazing ones so frequently that you would suspect he's doing it on purpose for some reason. Still, there's a sort of amorphous quality to what he brings to a film, even in some of his more maligned works, that I've always keyed into; a darkness that he brings to even the most saccharine of roles. Of those, one of my personal favorites is the perhaps somewhat underrated film Patch Adams.

Yeah, sorry, I guess the title could have been a little misleading there...

Nah, I'm just fucking with you, it's Jumanji!

Jumanji follows two generations trapped in the grip of an evil supernatural boardgame that they must win to both stay alive and to save their hometown from total destruction. What transforms the story from what could have been a fairly average fantasy adventure into what I genuinely call a classic is the treatment of the characters, who are all reflections of the twisted world in which they inhabit. All the elements are blended together so seamlessly that you almost never notice that this wacky madcap kids' movie is about two kids struggling with the tragic death of both parents, with the help of their friends, the spinster traumatized into a hermit, and a man child essentially raised by psychological torture, escaping a world of unending terror only to find that that world has followed him home and threatens to destroy everything he spent his entire life wishing to see again. It's a fucked up movie is what I'm saying. For me it ranks up there with movies like the Labyrinth, Time Bandits, or the early respectable work of Don Bluth, those fantasy films with a sinister macabre quality that elevates them above the typical family fare, and I don't think it always gets the credit for this that it deserves. Anyway, the following are ten examples of said fuckedness that I have always appreciated, in no particular order:

1: Time and Relative Dimension in Jumanji

As is fitting when dealing with the narrative mechanic of time travel, lets begin at the end. The end of Jumanji reveals that upon completing the game several decades after starting it, all of time is reversed, brought back to the point when the two main adults in the film began playing as kids. They are the only ones who remember the original timeline, and this is treated as an opportunity to re-live their lives as they should have, and make things right for others whose lives also ended up badly the first time around. It's a twist that is really unnecessary to the story structure and its not present in the original book as far as I know, and while it is presented as a happy ending, this idea creates a lot more problems than solutions.

First off, you've established that the Jumanji board game is effectively a working time machine. What's to stop some mad man from starting a game, killing the Rhino or whatever that comes out, and then putting it in a closet for twenty years while he becomes witness to future events that he can later exploit to his benefit? Sure it might be dangerous once it comes time to finish the game, but the possible rewards would be too good to pass up. And what of everyone else in this scenario, who live their lives not knowing that in a few years it will all be erased, and possibly replaced by a timeline ruled by an insane board game enthusiast?

Even if you reject the mad time traveler hypothesis, the nature of the game and how it travels from player to player makes this time reversal aspect particularly troubling. The movie implies that Jumanji is almost destined by some dark force to find people to play it, enticing them with its mystical drum beat and finding its way into the hands of children no matter how hard the previous owners tried to dispose of it. And given the instantly frightening events of the first roll, one would think the natural impulse to put away the game for months or years at a time after the first or second turn would cause this time gap to form more often than not. Whose to say we're not in one right now, just waiting for our lives to blink out of existence? And how would we know how many Jumanji induced time loops we've already experienced? This could be the twentieth time you've read this column for the first time!

This gets even more fucked up when you factor in the other magic board game that exists in this world, Zathura. This space themed evil supernatural game works on essentially the same principle as Jumanji, except that it functions more like the Jumanji from the cartoon adaptation, where the participants are always sucked into another dimension inside the game until they succeed or die. But think about this for a second. What if you play a game of Zathura in between someone else playing Jumanji. You're outside of time, so naturally you wouldn't be effected by the time reversal effect, but when you win and go back to your own time, it has since been erased. You would come back to a reality that no longer exists, and slowly fade away like Marty McFly in the alternate ending of Back to the Future where he gives in to incestuous temptation. What cruel universe would allow all of history to exist purely at the whims of a board game and the unsuspecting children who play it?

2: The Jungle of Lost Children

And speaking of those children, another aspect of Jumanji points to a truly haunting reality when the film reveals what happens when someone cheats. When young Peter tries to pull one over on the insidious intelligence inside the game, he is punished by finding himself slowly turning into a monkey. We don't see the full transformation, as the game is won before he goes fully ape, but the cartoon provides more insight into this phenomena, with the character turning into everything from a turtle, to a parrot, to a Manji, a member of the cannibalistic pigmy tribe of the Jumanji jungle. That last example is the most relevant, as it reveals that if trapped too long in one of these punishment forms, a human player may become a permanent part of Jumanji itself.

This brings me back to the world of the film, and I am forced to wonder about all the strange and dangerous creatures coming out of the game. We see monkeys terrorizing the town to much comic effect, but would it be so funny if the connection was made more explicitly, that these mindless beasts were in fact once human children who weren't as lucky as young Peter? One would think the difficulty and high stakes created by this game would make the impulse to cheat almost irresistible, especially if you had no way of knowing the consequences before you did it. And whose to say its just the monkeys? Maybe all the creatures coming into the real world are not just appearing, but escaping to the world they once knew, just like Williams' character Alan, whose turn at the dice transformed him into Jumanji's own twisted version of Tarzan. It's like that scene in Pinnochio with the donkeys on Pleasure Island, or that scene with the dog girl from Full Metal Alchemist that you never want to watch again because it makes me, I mean you, cry every time, except now its expanded into a whole world of kidnapped and mutated children, their innocence taken from them and replaced by a ravenous animal instinct.

3: Rolling A Die

While writing this column, I've been trying to think of other games where the prospect of players dying is as integral a part as in Jumanji. The only deadly games I could think of were Russian Roulette and Human Hunting if that even counts (and of course the short lived UPN series Deadly Games starring Christopher Lloyd as virtual villain Sebastian Jackyl). The thing these games have in common is that the deaths of the participants are required for the game to come to its intended conclusion. By contrast, Jumanji is just as deadly if not more so than any of these, but its turn based design means that even one character dying essentially makes it impossible to continue or end a game.

Remember, the game waited some three decades for one player to roll the dice in the movie, and there's no indication that a player's death forfeits their game piece. The clear implication is that all players must survive at least long enough for one to win, or once it becomes the dead player's turn, the game is rendered unplayable.  On the one hand, you might think that this would be a good thing, and in fact it might be a loophole one could use to stop this evil game once and for all, by forcing a player to roll the dice at gun point, then instantly shooting him in the head. On the other hand, you can almost guarantee that this action would be considered by the game to be cheating, and it would mostly likely proceed to turn you into an uncharacteristically aggressive antelope.

More to the point, the death of any player stops the course of the game in its tracks, maintaining the level of chaos already unleashed up to that point, making it a permanent fact of life for those around ground zero. By the end of the film, the game has destroyed an entire town, released thousands of murderous jungle beasts, an unstoppable Terminator-esque superhuman killing machine in a pith helmet, and a monsoon that would no doubt only grow once it leaves the confines of the players' house. In short, it is a nexus of supernatural evil spreading outward and increasing exponentially with no way to stop it from overtaking the entire country, and then the world, all because Bonnie Hunt was eaten by a lion. Any hope of a time reversal for the good is lost, and all we can do is watch as our world is slowly enveloped by the coming jungle.

4: The Eighth Circle Of Jumanji

And where exactly is this jungle anyway? All evidence points to another dimension, but no direct references are ever made to what this place really is, how it came to be, or why the only bridge between this world and ours is found in, of all things, a board game. That said, I think there's a clue that points to the larger mythology that is easily overlooked, presented in the form of the film's main antagonist of the second and third acts, the unstoppable big game hunter Van Pelt. The character is played by Jonathan Hyde, who also plays the young Alan's distant father, who is said to have died a few years before the adult Alan returns. A superficial analysis of this dual casting choice would see the metaphorical presentation of Alan's unresolved father issues embodied by the unkillable adversary, but I think a more literal interpretation actually serves us better here. What if these two character's are, in fact, the same person?

But how, you may ask, does a person die in our world only to be reborn in another, reincarnated as a force for evil in a place of unending supernatural torment? I think the answer is obvious, and that what the filmmakers are trying to tell us here is that Jumanji is in fact the afterlife, specifically the dark infernal pit of Hell itself. Here the game acts much in the same way as Lemarchand's Puzzle Box from the Hellraiser series, acting as a conduit to the underworld, allowing its demonic denizens some measure of freedom over the living world. Alan's father, condemned for his poor treatment of his son, must now face his guilt by taking the form of his now grown child's worst nightmare, hunting him down day after day in a never ending psychodrama. One can assume that Van Pelt is not the only denizen of Jumanji sentenced there for a life of sin. Those animals that aren't former children transformed for cheating are no doubt the souls of the damned, living through their own personal hellscapes in bestial silence. Trader Slick, voiced by Tim Curry in the cartoon series, is almost certainly the reincarnation of Josepf Stalin. I can't possibly be the only one to have picked up on this.

Now I know what you're saying: Alan's father only died a few years before the present day events of the movie, but dialogue implies that Van Pelt has been a part of Alan's life for much longer than that. This may seem like a contradiction, but we don't have to reach too far back into our own pop culture memory to find an answer for it. The much maligned last season of the television series Lost provides a simple solution to this problem, putting forth the idea that the afterlife is a realm where time has no meaning, the past, present, and future all co-mingling into one. Van Pelt, like Jack Shepherd and his friends, existed in the afterlife even before his former self actually died, because eventually he would die, and in the next life, is and will be are the same thing.

(Coincidentally, this connection between worlds is also how time travel works in both fictional universes. When two realities are bridged together along a common axis, one governed by linear time and the other by non-linear time, the constraints of linear time can be circumvented by rotating one reality against the other, changing the linear timeline's position relative to the non-linear one. The mechanism of rotation in Lost is a giant donkey wheel, with one end wedged into the non-linear afterlife encompassing the past, present, and future, and the other end spitting out into the ice cave, which when turned shifts the island in time. So, in conclusion, suck it, people who said they never explained that shit.)

5: When You Stare Into the Abyss...

So if Jumanji is Hell, and I'm pretty sure I just unequivocally proved that it is, where is the Devil in all of this? The obvious answer is that he is swimming in the inky black ocean of the game's signature clue delivery system at the center of the game board. Perhaps he is trapped in this dome, forced to dole out clues at random until a hapless player reveals the one that finally frees him into the world of men. Or maybe he's simply sending the clues remotely from someplace deep within the jungle, sitting atop an evil palm tree while causally sipping from an even more evil coconut. Either way, the Jumanji universe appears to treat Satan as a trickster like the riddle peddling boogeymen of legend, akin to Rumplestitskin or the Sphinx (I assume; I don't actually know anything about the real mythological Sphinx, and rather than do any cursory research, I've chosen to rely purely on my incomplete memory of an old Extreme Ghostbusters episode, where I'm pretty sure he ate peoples' brains out of their eye sockets. It was an Egon-centric episode if I remember correctly).

Now at this moment you may be asking yourselves if this entry on the list is really deserving of its own separate section, or if it is simply the logical extension of the last point. You may even accuse me of trying to cheat you by promising ten horrifying consequences while only providing nine (and presumably transforming into a meercat or baboon as a result). I take the point, but I think in a way, it still works. The problem here is not so much in the effect this notion has on the fictional universe of Jumanji, but as a meta commentary on our reaction to it as kids. When we saw this movie and how the board game worked, the first thing any of us said was "Wow, Kirsten Dunst has some really crooked teeth. She should definitely get those looked at before trying to play Spiderman's girlfriend." Then, the second thing we'd say was "Why can't all our board games be that cool and have that awesome clue thingy on it?" All Crossfire had were ball bearings, and its ability to serve as a post apocalyptic battle arena was vastly exaggerated. We all wanted the Jumanji dome thing, but in reality, what we were really asking for without even realizing it was that the Devil himself would come and possess our entertainment, to tell us exactly how he wanted us to kill our whole family in sacrificial praise to him, in the form of a series of clever riddles. Think about it. Or don't, whatever.

6: God, And His Obvious Hatred Of Children

At this point, now that we've established just how far reaching and insidious the influence of Satan is in the Jumanji universe, it seems fair to begin to question just what kind of God would allow such a situation to exist. Throughout fiction, the relationship between God and the Devil has been imagined in many different ways, though the dichotomy tends to fall roughly into one of two general categories. One has the two entities in conflict with one another, typically in the context of an ancient and endless war between good and evil with the fate of the world at stake, as in the television series Supernatural, or the obviously much more relevant Slam Dunk Ernest. Alternatively, God and Satan are sometimes portrayed as being too sides of the same coin, both playing their part in the greater cosmic ballet, or at worst friendly rivals playing a game of chess with the universe (or in the case of the classic 1991 Blake Edwards film Switch, a convoluted game involving murderous prostitutes, posthumous sex change operations, and Jimmy Smits). Jumanji however seems to go in an entirely different direction, creating a scenario in which God, assuming he or she still exists, must be at best casually indifferent towards the suffering caused by this evil game, if not just as cruel, and possibly even complicit.

To say that the God of the Jumanji universe is a cruel and capricious one is obvious by virtue of the fact that this game is allowed to propagate its evil throughout the world without any interference, but that's only one facet of the problem. It can't be taken for granted that this infernal device is clearly designed to appeal primarily to small and presumably innocent children. To use the Hellraiser example from before, imagine if the puzzle box that summons the Cenobites into the world to reveal to you the sublime pleasure of torture was re-designed and re-packaged as a wacky rubix cube like toy that forms into Sponge Bob Square Pants. To call this simple cruelty is not enough, as this clearly points to an almost whimsical, Roald Dahl-esque hatred of children on the part of the divine (a reference that the Internet tells me is evidently apocryphal, but fuck that shit). So even if you manage to escape the many dangers of the jungle and win the game, any benefit that you may have gained from re-living your life with advanced knowledge of future events will be sullied by the slow realization that you are living in a cold, vicious, uncaring universe.

But it doesn't just stop at passive indifference to human suffering. If Jumanji is Hell, created and controlled by the Devil, then logically the space themed game Zathura, concerned as it is with the exploration of what some might call the Celestial arena, must naturally be its heavenly equivalent. It makes sense when viewed in the context of that cosmic chess game, that God, seeing what the Devil has wrought and seeing humans as little more than pawns subject to his whims, would want to get in on the action. A just and kind God may have created a game that mirrors the path of ascension to some afterlife of paradise, a sort of guided tour of what leading a good life may result in as a counterpoint to Jumanji's vicious descent into the deep dark jungle of damnation, but that is not this game. The other dimensional world inside Zathura is, if anything, just as dangerous as Jumanji, replete with evil killer robots, an army of monstrous reptilian soldiers called Zorgons, and Dax Shepherd, which is never a good thing for anyone. For his own amusement, God has essentially transformed Heaven itself into a weapon to send children into space and then murder them!

7: The Rules Of The Game

And even if you manage to escape either of these deadly board game adventures, you will never be able to escape the ultimate cosmic joke that they collectively represent. The secret other worlds of Jumanji and Zathura do not simply disappear at the conclusion of their respective games. These places are still out there, the games serving merely as portals or conduits between the living world and the lands beyond, lands that every mythology and religion teaches us we are destined to find ourselves in when we die. Winning the game is a small comfort once you realize that the entire experience was merely a prelude to the inevitable fate of your immortal soul. Whether you lived a life of sin, or one of quiet nobility in hopes of one day finding salvation, it does not matter. All morality is meaningless in the face of the Lovecraftian doom that awaits us all. You're only reward for a good life in the service of uplifting humanity - waking up in the cold, lifeless void of space rather than the hot jungle full of terrifying beasts, only to realize the O Henry-esque irony that your new Zorgon body craves both heat and the flesh of large mammals. Yes, like the Monkeys and Van Pelt, Zorgons are the reincarnated souls of dead children. Dispute it if you can.

8: The Shattered Dreams Of Jungle Boys

When viewing something as large in scope as the Jumanji/Zathura Wheel of Life, Death, Time, and Reality, it's easy to forget that there is always a personal element that can't be overlooked. These games have touched so many lives and left only ruin in their wake, leaving those few who survive to live out the rest of their lives, often twice as long as they otherwise would have been, as broken people, devoid of any hope for a normal life. The trauma that results from this experience is nothing short of devastating, and one must only look towards the original film's protagonist to see this played out. Alan Parrish spends the majority of his life in Hell, growing up fighting for his life every day, never having a peaceful night's sleep, and then suddenly finds himself ripped back into the world he once knew, but that is no longer familiar to him. He seems to have a happy ending, living out a new life in which he eventually marries his highschool sweetheart once the time loop starts over, but how can this happy life be anything but a lie. Does anyone honestly believe that any man could go from a jungle savage to a normal member of society at all, let alone so quickly, after growing up in Satan's Skinner Box? The film ends with Alan and his wife throwing a Christmas party for the town, of which he is now a pillar of the community, but like Terry O'Quinn in The Stepfather, this life is clearly just a mask to hide the monstrous jungle beast within. The dark reservoir of pain that must reside inside him, building with every nightmare that pulls him back to his past life in Jumanji, must be like a powder keg waiting to blow. This man is just one really bad day away from climbing a watchtower, ranting and raving like a mad man about monsoons and stampedes until he is dragged away to the asylum. Why they didn't put that deleted extended ending onto the DVD, I have no idea.

9: From The Makers Of Jumanji

And perhaps the most frightening consequence of this universe is also the most obvious. It all started with Jumanji, one little board game in one small New England town that could have been written off as an isolated case. And then there was Zathura, another game, in another town, with a completely different parallel dimension full of terrors behind its mysterious mechanisms. How many more games are out there, and who exactly is building them? Yes, they are ultimately controlled by Satan and God respectively, but presumably, like the puzzle box, there must have been some human element to their creation, some acolyte or acolytes to do the physical leg work of carving the board and its pieces. And while Jumanji appears to be ancient and homemade, suggesting it is possibly unique, Zathura is in a box, with pre-printed cards, suggesting that at least at one point it was being mass produced. How many homes does this game reside it, sitting on a shelf gathering dust until some unsuspecting lover of retro gaming picks it up on a rainy day? And how many other games did this company make? Does every pantheon have its own game? Are the Norse Gods out there somewhere, just waiting for someone to roll the dice so they can enact a mini-Ragnarock on some innocent family? Is Anubis waiting around in a dark corridor in some extra dimensional pyramid waiting to put small children on his scales of justice? I think the answer is almost certainly yes, and if nothing else has, it should chill you to the bone. Also, finally -

10: Jumanji Hates Black People

Okay, this one is just a no-brainer. Carl Bentley, played by David Allen Grier, seems to be a character meant to provide comic relief through his many unfortunate encounters with the game and the resulting gradual loss of his sanity. Why this would be considered amusing is strange in itself, but beside the point. The fact is, despite not being a direct participant in the game, Carl is made a target of its satanic wrath as much if not more so than any other character who is actually rolling the dice. Why is this? You could argue that as a police officer dedicated to protecting his town, he is more likely than the average person to find himself in dangerous situations, but at the same time, there are presumably other cops in this town, and yet he appears to be singled out, and in many cases, finds himself fending off Jumanji related terrors whether he's responding to a call or not. The guy is a walking magnet for muderous jungle terror, and I can't imagine that it's just a coincidence that the only person not playing the game to be so singled out by it is also apparently the only black dude in this entire white bread New England hamlet. This is probably the worst thing on this list for me. I mean, constructing parallel universes of eternal torment that in many cases specifically target children and exist only to churn through human souls and transform innocent people into jungle monsters or space lizards is one thing, but bigotry? That just seems arbitrary. Don't we have enough problems with race in this country without God and Satan using their evil vortex boardgames to make things worse? It's the 21st century for goodness sake. This shit may have played when these games were terrorizing ancient Babylonia, but nowadays, it just comes off as really backwards and distasteful.

So, the next time you're watching Jumanji, or its horrifying companion piece Zathura, always remember that, much like Fred Claus, these films are not merely entertaining jaunts into worlds of fantasy and adventure. These are warnings. Dire warnings of what is to come. The end of days will come not with fire in the sky or rivers of blood, but with crazy motherfuckers in pith helmets and wacky monkeys stealing police cars.

So it is written, and then later adapted into a series of movies.
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