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ROBIN OF THE JUNGLE

If you're going to put a bearded lunatic wearing a suit made from banana leaves in your movie, the lunatic probably should be Robin Williams. He's from another planet anyway, isn't he? If you're going to run a herd of elephants, rhinos and zebras down the main drag of a quiet little town in New Hampshire, it helps if the stampede makes some kind of crazy sense. And if you're going to wreck yet another cop car, it's a good idea to let half a dozen monkeys do it this time around. Just before they loot the appliance store and scamper off with a load of VCRs and boom boxes.

Jumanji is a $65 million bundle of special effects with a slender little tale about growing up stuck inside it. It's also one of the most enjoyable larks of the holiday movie season. It helps to be nine years old, of course. But even if you are, say, 109, you'll probably appreciate the way Honey, I Shrunk the Kids director Joe Johnston and the resident wizards at Industrial Light & Magic have stuffed the stocking. They've conjured up giant mosquitoes that drill their way through car windshields, a big-maned African lion lounging in the upstairs guest room of a New England mansion, and a British game hunter in jodhpurs and pith helmet, somehow stranded in the wrong century with his elephant gun still at the ready.

The movie's wild array manages to overshadow even the superheated comedy of Williams, whose only choice here is to go with the frantic flow wherever he can. Who wouldn't be upstaged by an elephant crushing a station wagon at the corner of Elm and Main?

Loosely based on Chris Van Allsburg's picture-heavy, text-light children's book, Jumanji has a twelve-year-old boy getting sucked right into an old jungle-theme board game, fighting its demons for 26 years and re-emerging only when another set of kids happens to come up with the right roll of the dice. Then all of them must complete the game together, facing Jumanji's surreal, dangerous challenges, and their own fears, with pluck. Hey, that's not so easy when killer vines swallow the living room, or when the great-white-hunter guy with the blunderbuss stalks you right into the paint department at the local discount store.

In other words, the moviemakers have combined the big-animal thrills of Jurassic Park with the current taste for time-travel fantasy, added some Spielbergian touches of their own, then fizzed the whole thing up with rockin' Robin Williams. For the little ones in the house, Jumanji is equal parts of scare and laughter. Yet despite all its technical dazzle, it depends in the end on two of the oldest kiddie-movie staples of all--the fear of losing your parents and the magical thinking by which you can repair the past.

That's why Williams's Alan Parrish, the easy-target kid of rich, stuffy parents, returns after 26 years in oblivion: He has to put things right. So do the too-cute kids (Bradley Pierce and Kirsten Dunst) he must help through the trials of the Jumanji game. They've lost their folks, too, in a plane crash. But no one in their right mind would let that kind of thing stand, at least not in a romp so vivacious as this one. So in the end Alan and the little guys get to do what Michael J. Fox got to do in the Back to the Future series--save their own parents' lives.

For grownups, meanwhile, the movie's funniest ploy may ride with a minor character--the girl, now in her thirties, who was playing Jumanji with little Alan when he vanished. In the wake of that trauma and the townspeople's contempt, she's turned into a quavering collection of neuroses and so needs some renovation of her own. Bonnie Hunt plays the grown-tall (but not grown-up) Sarah with just the right wide-eyed bafflement, the perfect foil to Williams's farflung energies.

What more do you need to know? Here's fun for the whole family, as they used to say, expertly packaged and brightly decorated.

Jumanji. Screenplay by Jonathan Hensleigh, Greg Taylor and Jim Strain. Directed by Joe Johnston. With Robin Williams, Jonathan Hyde, David Alan Grier, Kirsten Dunst, Bradley Pierce and Bonnie Hunt.

 
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