Remember How ‘Jumanji’ Was Kind of About American Deindustrialization?

Last week, it was announced that a Jumanji remake had found its director. This project is not the first film based on the book, not the TV series, not the other movie that was a “spiritual sequel” to the first movie, and not the Goosebumps movie that… also weirdly sounded more like Jumanji than Goosebumps; it’s a whole other movie with a “new take on the book,” and now we know it will be helmed by Jake Kasdan (The New Girl, Fresh Off the BoatFreaks and Geeks).As The Hollywood Reporter suggests, Kasdan will need to work as quickly as a crude ’90s CGI stampede, since the film is somehow slated for release on December 25 of this year.

With the new director and the alleged imminent release in mind, I began to recall why 1995’s Jumanji was one of the most memorable films I watched as a kid. There was, of course, Robin Williams’ always-dynamic mix of puerile humor and paternal warmth. And the film was a kid’s perfect introduction to traditional horror-movie structures, plot lines (someone discovering they shouldn’t play with a mysterious something-or-other, then doing so and getting haunted and antagonized  by it), and thrills — with lions and mosquitos popping out from the unknown to jarring sound effects, just as a decomposing corpse might do in an adult horror movie. But beyond the obvious, there was something else about this ridiculous story that stuck — a certain melancholy, one that it turns out came from the story’s backdrop of deindustrialized depression.

Yes, I realize that Jumanji was first and foremost a children’s movie about a malevolent board game that swallows children and regurgitates gargantuan mosquitos, earthquakes, anachronistic hunters, and Robin Williamses. But in revisiting it, I found that my memory hadn’t been exaggerating the film’s underlying despondency via its setting in a town that’s been devastated by failed industry — which the movie also weaves into a vague plot of gendered and racialized culpability.

Recall that the film begins with Alan Parish, the obscenely wealthy son of the owner of a shoe factory that — at its height in the ’60s — supports a thriving Northeastern town. He goes to visit the factory one day, and his acquaintance (Carl Bentley, a young black man working among predominantly white employees) shows him a sneaker he’s invented. Carl wants to pitch his prototype to Alan’s father as an upgrade to the types of shoes the factory makes. In this scene, we see the happy workers, the glossy factory, the vital town — replete with new construction surrounding the factory — just outside. But then Alan unthinkingly places the precious prototype sneaker down on a conveyor belt, which begins to move, leading to both the conveyor belt’s and the sneaker’s demise. When Alan’s father sees the wreckage, Alan lets Carl take the blame, and departs. He is that much of a classic little shit: the wealthy white kid just unrepentantly (at least, until said wealthy white kid blossoms into a charming and contrite Robin Williams) ruins the career of a black man… in the ’60s.

With that, Alan exits the factory and is drawn towards a mysterious drumming in the mud by the construction site; he discovers a game called Jumanji — basically Cranium + evil — plays it with his middle-school crush, and is duly sucked into the game. Within its world, he essentially lives for 26 years as a Project Runway contestant, ducking the attacks of vicious foes and tailoring fashion-forward banana-leaf outfits. During this time, the factory goes under as Alan’s father falls into despair and devotes his time and money to trying to find his son. He dies. So does his wife (who, incidentally, is Patricia Clarkson). The town sinks into total dilapidation, its residents unemployed, disenfranchised, evicted, relegated to the streets. So go the first 15 minutes of Jumanji.

It’s surprising going back to this kid’s movie that, it turns out, blends a fantastical form of destruction with a hyperrealistic one. The town gets destroyed by animals, but they’re certainly not starting from scratch. Normally, movies about disasters take polished, thriving societies and underscore the wreckage by contrast. As a cinematic device, this is more aesthetically dynamic — a prolonged before-and-after shot.

But while poor American communities may not be susceptible to Jumanji-specific woes like overgrowth by automobile-eating flowers or quicksand floors, it is these places that are the most neglected in the face of environmental adversity. Flint, Michigan — the decline of which was famously documented in Michael Moore’s 1989 documentary, Roger and Me, and which has been a recurring reminder of America’s abandonment of formerly working-class communities — is currently facing a massive health crisis involving lead-contaminated water that began in April 2014, with the federal government just now intervening.

Jumanji is just as captivating to me now as it was when I was a kid, but for different reasons. As a child, I was viscerally afraid of the jumping spiders and other such creatures. Now that I’m an adult, I see beyond the stiff, self-congratulatory CGI innovations to the film’s totally weird — but fascinating, for kids’ movie — choice of an deindustrialized northern American backdrop.

Jumanji, in its very brief running time, establishes a quintessentialized precarious American community — one whose entire wellbeing is based on the continued success of one moneyed man way at the top of its social hierarchy. The closure of a single company’s factory leaves the rest of the town economically vulnerable. That’s not too dissimilar to Flint, whose economy began to decline in the ’80s, when General Motors began exercising deindustrialization plans (through outsourcing and relocating, as opposed to through torpor-due-to-disappearance-of-son-by-board-game); the city was $30 million in debt by 2002.

What’s perhaps most intriguing about this aspect of the film is the way it interrogates the influence of upper-crust patriarchy, with an oddly Freudian double-casting choice. Havoc ensues because of one father’s stringent ideals of masculinity and the manifest destiny of the male ego, and his son’s acting out in resistance to them. Right before the son disappears into the board game — leading the father to neglect the town he basically owns — his father informs him he’ll attend the Cliffside School for Boys. It’s a boarding school with a hall bearing their family name, where boys presumably learn to be stuffy, entrepreneurial pricks. And when Alan expresses disinterest in learning to be a stuffy, entrepreneurial prick, his father all but questions the authenticity of their biological bond. At the end of the film, when — because it’s a kids’ movie — everything is reversed, and the town thrives, it’s only because this angsty preteen and his father have settled their beef, and thus angsty preteen never ends up disappearing into Angry Boggle. Yes, in Jumanji, an entire economy is destroyed and repaired as a result of one argument about manhood. In an economy so tightly wound around one individual, the micro inevitably becomes macro.

As for the Freudian aspect, we never see it within the game, but it’s implied once Alan falls into Jumanji that a good deal of his life is taken up by resisting becoming prey to a skilled hunter — who seems to be the one part of the game adult-Alan is still afraid of. When said hunter finally exits the game (which the game announces with the horrifying riddle: “A hunter from the darkest wild makes you feel just like a child”) and begins shooting up a discount superstore (of course), we see that beneath his turn-of-the-century ‘stache and pith helmet, he has the same face as Alan’s father. Persistently hunted and haunted by his father’s image, Alan has trouble not perpetuating a legacy of masculine repression, scolding the kid who conjured him from the game for not “being a man.” When he realizes what he sounds like, he makes a corrective self-deprecating joke: “26 years in the deepest darkest jungle, and I still became my father.”

There’s no reason for Jumanji to return, but for the fact that, like the odious plank of wood on which this film is based, Hollywood’s favorite game is to spit out bits of the past. The movie was a great display of Robin Williams’ charm and versatility, as well as an inventive horror movie for kids, all set against a pointed subplot about American deindustrialization. The next film might well update the original by reformatting the game scenario for the digital age. There’s certainly plenty to mine there. But it’s just as (if not more) likely that the deindustrialization subplot — which wasn’t present in the children’s book on which Jumanji was based — won’t be a part of the new movie. We don’t know yet whether Jake Kasdan’s Jumanji will be the next fun, fearful, and thoughtful kids’ movie, so for now, why not look back to the sweet, ambitious, tonally bizarre, socially (somewhat) insightful thing that the original was?