I’ve wanted to write about Jumanji for a long time, but I couldn’t find the right spark of inspiration. I didn’t want to mindlessly praise it or make an unwarranted comparison to another film. For example, for a while I thought of comparing it to It’s a Wonderful Life, but the similarities between the two films were superficial at best.
And then it finally hit me. Jumanji is a good version of 2004’s The Cat in the Hat. Seriously. Think about the books they are based on. A brother and sister are bored at home, so they start playing a game that gets out of control, and everything gets cleaned up at the end as if nothing had happened.
How do you adapt something small and simple like that to the big screen? By adding higher stakes and introducing more characters and backstories into the mix. Jumanji’s additions work, while The Cat in the Hat’s fail utterly. Let’s discuss them.
A Taste of Crazy at the Start
The Cat in the Hat instantly introduces us to a strange world. The Cat in the Hat himself is supposed to be the introduction of insanity into the real world, but the office where Conrad and Sally’s mom works is already a bizarre place. I guess it’s supposed to be a kind of Dr. Seuss land where the characters live. But the film keeps reminding us that other real-world countries (like Taiwan and the Philippines) exist, so it’s hard to take this setting seriously or understand its relation to our world.
Jumanji introduces the insanity that awaits early on in a much cleverer way. It shows a couple of young men in the 1800s burying the Jumanji boardgame and giving an ominous warning to whoever finds it. Then we cut to a picturesque scene of New England in 1969. Thus, we see the contrast between normal life and the promise of horrifying things to come once the boardgame intrudes upon reality.
Introducing the Children
We get a slight whiff of backstory for Conrad and Sally in The Cat in the Hat. Conrad is a bit of a troublemaker, and Sally is a straightlaced control freak. They’re barely less superficial than the characters in the book. They don’t have a father, but they never address why, so I don’t know how much that plays into their personalities.
I’m going to repeat myself a lot, but Jumanji does something incredibly clever here. For anyone who’s read the book, they’re expecting to see a brother and sister named Peter and Judy, respectively. Instead, we’re introduced to an only child named Alan Parrish and a nice girl he likes named Sarah Whittle. And over the course of the film, we learn that both of them clearly have issues as a result of bullies, controlling parents, and/or childhood trauma.
Things go south fast once they start playing Jumanji, and they don’t get to finish their game until 26 years later when a brother and sister named Peter and Judy join in the “fun.” The fact that Peter and Judy don’t show up until a good chunk into the film throws us off and adds an intriguing dimension to the film. What will happen when they finish the game? We really don’t know.
That’s one of the main problems with The Cat in the Hat. Everyone knows the Cat is just going to repair all the damage and leave. So there’s no mystery, and it doesn’t matter how messed up the house gets. Jumanji manages to create suspense by dragging the game out for decades until we’ve almost forgotten when it actually began.
My point is that Peter and Judy’s parents died tragically, giving them a much-needed backstory that explains their unique personalities. They’re not bad kids, but they’re dealing with grief, which leads them to get into mischief.
Parents at Work
The first time we see Conrad and Sally’s mom, she’s at a real-estate agency. Her boss is comically overbearing. He fires a new guy for simply shaking his hand and getting germs on him. The mother, on the other hand, gets praised for her hard work by her boss.
Alan Parrish narrowly evades some school bullies by riding his bike to his father’s shoe factory. While waiting to speak to his father, he talks to an ambitious worker who has created a ‘90s-style basketball shoe in the ‘60s. Unfortunately, Alan accidentally destroys it and damages a machine in the process, leading to that worker getting fired.
Military School and Boarding School
Conrad and Sally’s mom is dating a neighbor named Larry. He instantly identifies himself as a cartoonish villain by using the old cliché of threatening to send Conrad off to military school once he marries the boy’s mother. He’s easily outwitted and defeated by the end of the film.
Mr. Parrish thinks he’s rewarding his son when he tells Alan he’s sending him to a boarding school. It’s a family tradition, but Alan sees it as a cruel punishment. It’s complicated because the dad isn’t trying to be a bad guy, but he’s not being a good father. In fact, Alan claims he doesn’t want to be a Parrish, if it means he has to live at a boarding school. It creates a serious conflict that isn’t easy to resolve.
Angry Last Words
The sons in both films have angry parting words for their parents before they set off on crazy adventures. “I wish I had a different mom” is the last thing Conrad says to his mother before she leaves the house to go to the office. At the end of the day, she returns and he has a chance to take those words back.
“I’m never talking to you again” is the last thing Alan says to his father before Mr. Parrish leaves with his wife for a fancy party. Alan then gets sucked into the Jumanji game and has to spend 26 years fighting for his life in a jungle. Meanwhile, his father and mother die of a broken heart after searching high and low for him for years.
And only at the end of the game, when Alan gets transported back into his child body, does he finally get to apologize to his father. It’s just been a few minutes for Mr. Parrish, but it’s been a lifetime to Alan. We’ve seen the damage their broken relationship has done to the town and numerous people’s damaged lives. That makes it a much more emotionally satisfying moment when the two finally get a chance to reconcile.
Conrad and Sally’s mom leaves the two at home with a babysitter who falls asleep almost instantly. And she stays asleep for most of the film. The mother has to go to work after preparing her house for an important business party that evening.
Alan’s parents leave him alone at home to attend a formal party one night. Alan plans on running away, but he’s interrupted by Judy who has come to return his bike, which was stolen by a group of bullies. Years later, Peter and Judy stay home from school one morning after their aunt leaves for work.
Comedic Actor in the Lead
I’d like to point out that both of these films have an A-list comedic actor in the starring role. Mike Myers was at the top of his game in 2004, coming off of the success of the Austin Powers films and the first Shrek movie. He chews the scenery in every scene where he shows up, and not in a good way. He’s so over the top that he becomes annoying fast.
By contrast, Robin Williams shows an incredible amount of restraint in Jumanji. He was riding high off of the success of Aladdin, Mrs. Doubtfire, and other comedy films. But he plays Alan Parrish almost perfectly straight the whole time. Instead of a goofball, he comes across as a truly tragic figure. His redemption arc is the highlight of the movie because he didn’t just mug for the camera every chance he got. Plus, I remember feeling a sense of dread watching this film for the first time as a child. Because if someone as fun-loving as Robin Williams is taking this game seriously, I better, too!
Where Did They Come from?
In a children’s book, it’s not necessary to explain where a fantastical person or item comes from. In The Cat in the Hat, the Cat just walks in the door uninvited. In Jumanji, the siblings find the boardgame under a tree. No setup. No hinting that that would happen. There’s no time, and it’s not important to the story.
Movies are different. It is important to provide at least a little foreshadowing and context for why things happen. I don’t believe we even see a cat before the Cat in the Hat arrives in the film. He does have a phunometer, so maybe he uses it as a tool to seek out bored children? But that’s never made clear. In, say, Mary Poppins, she’s the first character we see, even if she doesn’t enter the story until a few scenes later. It doesn’t feel like she comes out of the blue when she floats into the picture. The Cat in the Hat does feel like a random intruder on the film’s plot.
Again, I’ll hearken back to the beginning of Jumanji. The boardgame is front and center. We don’t know who made it or why, but we know it’s dangerous and it shouldn’t be tampered with lightly. So by the time Alan finds it and starts to play it, the groundwork has already been laid to partly explain where it came from and what will likely happen. It’s the same with Peter and Judy.
Reading the Fine Print
Before the fun begins, the Cat in the Hat gets quite litigious. He demands Conrad and Sally sign long documents to ensure he’s not held liable. There’s nothing like that in the book. I think it’s supposed to be funny, but it’s not something a child would understand or find humorous. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory handled a contract-signing scene in a much smarter way.
Jumanji keeps its rules incredibly simple. The most important one is that the game won’t be finished until someone makes it to the end and shouts the word “Jumanji.” That’s straight out of the book. So it’s in the spirit of the book to have the game continue for decades. The book even hints at the end that the next two boys who find the boardgame may struggle to ever complete it since those two never read instructions.
Can You See/Hear It, Too?
I thought The Cat in the Hat was going to do something clever when Larry sees the kids blatantly disobeying their absent mother in their house. I wondered if the Cat would be invisible to grownups. But it turns out that the Cat was just hiding from him. He’s perfectly visible to everyone, so there’s no mystery about him being purely in the kids’ imagination or anything like that. That’s fine, but I wondered if the film would try something different and potentially interesting.
The Jumanji boardgame produces a jungle drum sound that seems to only be audible to children. Just Alan and Sarah hear it at first, and then Peter and Judy hear it years later, too. Even if they can’t hear the drums, everyone can see the effects of the game. Wild elephants, rhinoceroses, bugs, spiders, torrential downpours, and a deadly game hunter named Van Pelt, for example.
Thing 1 and Thing 2 create all sorts of mayhem in the house when the Cat in the Hat introduces them. One of the problems they cause is when they throw the kids’ dog out a window, and it runs away. Unfortunately, attached to its collar is a lock that they need to hold a crate shut. For some reason, that crate is the film’s big threat, opening a portal to the Cat in the Hat’s insane world.
It leads to a change in location, but everything that happens outside the house feels like an annoying waste of time. Not that the time inside the house was any better. And the trouble is that this doesn’t feel like it’s in the spirit of the book. Sure, there was a crate in the book, but it wasn’t central to the plot.
After rolling the dice a few times, Alan, Sarah, Peter, and Judy accidentally release a lot of animals into their unsuspecting town. One of those animals is a large pelican that takes the Jumanji boardgame in its beak and carries it to a river. This could seem like a pointless side quest. But thankfully this movie understands that changing the location offers new opportunities for character growth.
Peter demonstrates great courage by hanging upside down off a tree to grab the boardgame from the river. But then he tries to cheat, and the game makes him pay a terrible price. Meanwhile, Alan reconnects with his old friend from the shoe factory who’s now a police officer. And Sarah and the kids get to go all Home Alone on Van Pelt in a department store.
Most of Jumanji’s best scenes take place as a result of the pelican carrying the boardgame out of the house. And some of the most cringeworthy scenes in The Cat in the Hat take place as a result of the dog running away. Like the Paris Hilton cameo and various gags involving Larry. One enriches the story, while the other pads out the runtime.
The house is unrecognizable when the main characters return to it. Conrad and Sally discover that the crate has turned their house into a giant cartoon where logic breaks down. They just have to put the lock on the crate to restore some order. But it doesn’t fix everything.
When they finally return home, Alan, Sarah, Peter, and Judy discover that the house has been completely overgrown by a giant plant. It’s not absolutely necessary for them to return to that house, but they want to finish what they started where they started it. And hopefully reaching the end of the game will undo the damage done to the house.
Everything Gets Cleaned Up
Like in the book, Conrad and Sally finally demand that the Cat in the Hat leave their house. It’s good to have fun, but too much fun leads to chaos. The problem is, the film hasn’t earned the sudden change that comes over the children. It feels forced. And so does the lawyer scene where the Cat claims he planned everything out to teach them to be more responsible.
The ultimate sign of taking responsibility is to have someone else clean up the mess you caused, which the Cat in the Hat and Thing 1 and Thing 2 promptly do. The house is as good as new by the time the mother arrives.
Jumanji does something much more satisfying. Things get desperate when Van Pelt arrives at the house and threatens Alan with certain death. Alan demonstrates how much he’s grown as a character by refusing to run away. He has to face his fear. Alan throws the dice for his final turn, and he manages to get to the end and say the word “Jumanji” just before Van Pelt shoots a bullet at him.
Sarah has also changed. She tries to come between Alan and the bullet. They’ve both confessed their love for each other, and they don’t want to be pulled apart by anything. Luckily, at that moment the game starts to suck everything back in that it had released into the world, including the bullet and Van Pelt. Not only is the house repaired, but Alan and Sarah are transported back to their child bodies in 1969.
One Final Question
Both films ask an interesting question at the end. What would you do if something fantastical happened that you couldn’t explain to anyone else without sounding crazy? The Cat in the Hat answers it by having the kids join their mother in jumping on a couch they were never allowed to jump on before. So I suppose they all enjoy childish fun together now. Even though the mother still works at a horrible job and has a neighbor who detests her children. Whatever. At least the movie is over.
Jumanji answers that question in a much better way. Alan and Sarah are children again, but they have a whole lifetime of experiences to process. Although they have to behave like children again, they still retain their memories of what happened. And they know how to fix things so that they never actually happen. One of the first things Sarah does before she feels too much like a kid again is to kiss Alan. Even if there’s no one else on Earth who could understand what they went through, they’ll always have each other to talk to about it.
The End of a Long Journey
This has been a huge article. And I have to admit it hasn’t been the most painless experience to write. But I managed to survive watching The Cat in the Hat in a single sitting without getting angry at its crudeness and insulting attempts at humor. And then I wrote this 3,000-word treatise comparing it to a superior film. That’s an impressive achievement in my book.
The Cat in the Hat follows the same story beats as Jumanji almost the whole way through. I was shocked when I started comparing the two and found them to be nearly identical. But one is a chore to watch, and the other manages to remain intriguing and satisfying the whole way through. We’ve reached the end. There’s nothing left to do but shout out the better film’s name. Jumanji!!!
This is the Deja Reviewer bidding you farewell until we meet again.
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