The title Jumanji (TriStar, PG) refers to a magical board game: With each roll of the dice, the pieces advance by themselves, and a different species of jungle beast comes tearing through the room. Bats fly in from the fireplace, chattering monkeys take over the kitchen, an angry herd of rhinos and elephants and zebras races through the hallways. (Where's Ace Ventura when you really need him?)
We've all seen wild animals before, at least in the movies, but this time there's cinematic magic involved too. In Jumanji the animals on screen aren't real. They've been simulated by the same astonishingly three-dimensional computer technology that was used to create the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park (and, of course, the gizmos of Toy Story). What's striking about the movie is that when you're seeing, say, a synthetic lion, it doesn't simply look like the real thingit looks as scary as a Tyrannosaurus rex. The creatures in Jumanji are far more threatening quicker, louder, wilder than real jungle animals (I don't recommend taking small children). Is their demonic eeriness intentional, or is it an accidental by-product of the technology? Either way, it suits the purposes of the filmmakers, who re-create safari beasts with wizardly finesse but can't think of anything to do with them but zap you.
In 1969, in a cozy New Hampshire village, a young boy (Adam Hann-Byrd) finds the Jumanji game buried at a construction site. He takes it home, rolls the dice, and presto! -- he's sucked into some mystical jungle from the great beyond. Twenty-six years later, two other children (Kirsten Dunst and Bradley Pierce) find the game, and when they roll the dice, the first kid reemerges...as Robin Williams, adult survivor of Jumanji.
We suspect that they're all going to end up in that same jungle. Instead the jungle comes to them, as Williams, for reasons that are never really clear (beyond the fact that the film needs to keep generating critter sequences), insists that they play out the game until the end. Jumanji is cardboard Spielberg, a B-movie scrap heap of spare parts lifted from Jurassic Park and Gremlins and Back to the Future. All three of the main characters have lost their folks, and the theme of the missing parent gets quite a workout, especially when Williams, suppressing his wit, slips into sheepish domestic-guy mode. Personally, I preferred the scenes with the giant mosquito.
Director Joe Johnston (Honey, I Shrunk the Kids; The Rocketeer) has made a career of building movies around special-effects gimmicks. For Johnston, a story is something to keep the audience awake between set pieces. Still, if Jumanji is a negligible fairy tale, it reinforces something that was clear the moment the T. rex showed up in Jurassic Park: The new computer-image technology is going to revolutionize fantasy moviemaking. When the jungle animals of Jumanji stampede down the town's main street, the synthetic creatures appear to exist in the same spatial universe as cars and stores and trees. Far from being cold or ''inhuman,'' computer animation has a suppleness, a reach-out-and-touch-it verisimilitude, that allows filmmakers to bring otherworldly visions to eye-popping life. Let's hope they have the fantasies to live up to it. C+