Ty Burr
May 10, 1996 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Children’s books are solitary places. Even great bizarro stuff like Roald Dahl’s or Maira Kalman’s anarchic works are one-to-one experiences between author and child, windows through which a kid can peer, alone, into other, more fanciful universes. Children’s movies, though, are two-hour experiments in socialization. Field trips to the multiplex involve bathroom lines, Gummi Bear highs, beleaguered parents, and an auditorium full of children braying at the screen like a prepubescent Mystery Science Theater 3000. To cut through the clutter, a children’s movie has to be loud and fast — a constant assault of sensation.

This, in a Hollywood nutshell, is the difference between Jumanji the book and Jumanji the motion picture. And this too is the fundamental problem with the movie: In translating a story that plays like a dark daydream on the page into a splashy Robin Williams extravaganza, the producers came up with a hyperactive nightmare. It’s not that Jumanji is a bad movie. It’s just that you’d have to be clinically insane to show it to an 8-year-old.

Author-illustrator Chris Van Allsburg’s slender, forest green volume is notable, like all his work, for its sense of stillness. The book tells of two bored kids, Judy and Peter, who take home a mysterious ”jungle adventure” board game that they find in the park. As the kids roll the die and move their pieces, African beasts magically materialize in the living room. But this is no Sesame Street-style petting zoo — the lion chases Peter up the stairs, the monkeys trash the kitchen, the rampaging rhino trash everything else. It’s a little like The Cat in the Hat played for higher stakes.

It might be too scary, except that Van Allsburg’s breathtakingly evocative illustrations lift Jumanji into the realm of fine art. The black-and-white charcoal drawings feel very much like wayward Polaroids, catching moments in the narrative — a python coiled on the mantel, Judy pondering her next move as a monsoon floods the living room — with an eerie calm that keeps genuine fright at bay. Van Allsburg taps the slippery surrealism of kids’ own imaginations, and he knows that a fundamental seriousness lurks behind all child’s play: This story’s level gaze mocks the barren, cutesy condescension of so many children’s books.

Even though Van Allsburg was in on the scripting process, Jumanji the picture never manages to resolve its manic highs and somber lows. The book might have made a great Tim Burton movie — now there’s a guy to sniff out the dark poetry of the playroom — but as directed by Joe Johnston (Honey, I Shrunk the Kids), Jumanji is exciting, craftsmanlike, and all too literal.

The book unfolds over the course of one afternoon. The movie begins in 1869, when two terrified kids bury the board game, then skips ahead to 1969, when young Alan Parrish (Adam Hann-Byrd) digs it up and plays a round, with awful consequences, then skips ahead again to 1995, when orphaned Peter (Bradley Pierce) and Judy (the marvelously no-nonsense Kirsten Dunst) find the game in the attic of the old Parrish mansion. Having been held prisoner within the world of the game for 26 years, Alan bursts out as a grizzled yet childlike adult (Robin Williams); he, the childhood playmate who left him stranded (Bonnie Hunt), and the two children are forced to play Jumanji to its completion to rid the town of marauding beasties.

And until that endgame, we get a demolition derby. Jumanji has some heavy points to make about family — apparently, we all need one — but they have little to do with the circus in the center ring. The movie shows off the latest wave of computer-generated special effects, and there are remarkable sequences of sinewy lions clawing at little-kiddie feet, ottoman-size spiders clacking their drooling mandibles, and gigantic crocodiles belching and snapping. The stampeding rhino are a destructo joy to behold, even as they’re laying the town to waste (that the townsfolk immediately turn to looting, though, leaves a nasty taste).

The movie, in other words, plays for even higher stakes than the book, but the hyperrealism never lets the audience off the hook. Jumanji the movie is actually a very good kids’ flick — for adults. But Van Allsburg’s Jumanji is a very good grown-up book for kids, and that is by far the rarer beast.
Jumanji the book: A
Jumanji the movie: B

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