I didn’t like Jumanji all that well until I realized that it was a clever story about the pains of adolescence.
Jumanji is the name of an evil board game that puts its players through some nasty perils. Wild animals attack you and dark magic transforms you. The only good thing to be said about the game is that you might survive. Not exactly a redeeming message for kids. Quite disturbing, in fact.
Then it struck me. The board game is puberty: nobody gets off easy, the game cannot be beaten, and you’re lucky if you survive. Jumanji isn’t an evil board game; it’s a good old-fashioned initiation ritual. Point 1: two children had become trapped in the game and they failed to grow up emotionally. When released from the game, they are effectively just kids in adult bodies. Point 2: the boy has been turned into wolflike creature (he has grown facial hair) and he catches himself solving problems physically and without thinking. Point 3: the girl is told “every month at the quarter moon, there’ll be a monsoon in your lagoon,” and then she is put to the test with her first flood. Once you get the big picture, tons of little things fall into place.
The puberty metaphor is not at all hyped. In fact, it is hidden behind some showy, action-laden special effects. (Both Ebert and Maltin failed to mention it in their reviews.) The fact that it’s there does not in itself make Jumanji a great movie, but it turned my “semi-disappointed” into “pleasantly surprised.”