'Jumanji': a Whale of a Tale

Chris Van Allsburg's storybook is embellished and put on screen

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

'When I wrote 'Jumanji,' I never thought it could ever exist outside my own imagination,'' says author-illustrator Chris Van Allsburg. ''But it looks like now the movies have caught up with me.'' The new TriStar release, starring Robin Williams, is the first Hollywood adaptation of his stories.

The book, Mr. Van Allsburg's second, was published in 1982 and racked up the prestigious Caldecott Medal and other awards. Among the parents who, over the years, have read it to their youngsters, were movie producers Scott Kroopf and William Teitler. They recognized its cinematic possibilities and sought the movie rights from the shy, somewhat retiring Van Allsburg.

The original book's simple text and striking black-and-white charcoal drawings told the story of two small children who, bored one day while their parents are away, find in the woods a mysterious board game called Jumanji, a Jungle Adventure Game. They take it back to their house and, with a few rolls of the dice, soon find themselves overwhelmed by clawing lions, writhing snakes, rampaging rhinos, an erupting volcano, and a blowing monsoon.

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Van Allsburg says the moral of the story resides in the children's confrontation with the terrors they have unleashed. ''When things get rough, the kids consider waiting for the parents to come home. But they know they have to finish the game themselves if order is to be restored. And they also know that there's the possibility of lots of terrible things that could happen before they can finish it.''

The movie version complicates the basic plot by adding a side story about other children who had found the game in the past and initiated events that have to be resolved in the present.

This introduces the character played by Mr. Williams, a boy-man named Alan who has been imprisoned in the game for 26 years. Alan joins forces with two children to finish the game and banish the terrors that surround them.

Williams was another of those parents who had discovered ''Jumanji.'' Something of a game freak himself, he has gone from ''Chutes and Ladders'' as a kid to the more gritty adventures of today's video games. Even though the ''Jumanji'' game depicted in the book is a simple affair of dice and a board - a far cry from the elaborate game depicted in the film - he says it holds a basic fascination for children.

''I've read 'Jumanji' to my four-year-old and six-year-old,'' Williams says. ''They are fascinated and a bit frightened by the black-and-white drawings of monsters under the bed. But the story has ... something much deeper and more disturbing. It's the fear all children have of abandonment and separation from their parents. That's where my character comes in. I play a boy who has been swallowed up in the game. By the time he is able to come out, 26 years later, his parents are dead, and he feels lost and alone. That's something I can understand. As an only child, I had no siblings to play with, and my parents worked hard, and we moved around a lot.''

Meanwhile, everything in ''Jumanji'' the movie has been pitched to a degree and visualized with an extravagance that makes it a state-of-the-art special-effects epic. Thanks to teams of puppeteers, animatronic designers, and computer programmers, the elegant black-and-white images in the book have been transformed into a crazy, exotically colored menagerie.

''Maybe,'' Van Allsburg says, ''it's better to have these things kept to your imagination.''

Williams agrees that such wildly outsized horrors may not be appropriate for children under seven years of age. ''But in a story like this, where somewhat older kids can see something scary and come out of it OK - at least that can help them deal with things.

''If all you are is overprotective of your children, feed them only 'Nerf tales' where everything is wonderful, they will know you're a fraud,'' Williams says.

''Jumanji'' is a fairy tale; and like all fairy tales, it's a never-ending story. ''Instead of coming to an end, 'Jumanji' just opens out again,'' Van Allsburg says. ''You get the hint things will continue happening, beyond the borders of the book, and that the mysteries are only just beginning.''

Williams reflects on this: ''Yes, the story seems to be recycling itself. It's like when you grow up and have kids. My greatest adventure has been raising children. Because it has allowed me to time travel. I have been able to go back and relive and rework the ways I was raised. And reexperience it when I see my children's sense of wonder and fear and vulnerability. But now I'm no longer just the child, but the adult, too.''

''I try to do work that is timeless,'' Van Allsburg says. ''I don't try to give it a specific sense of time or place. I want to create books which, if they did not have the copyright [year] on the inside, could be happening at any time.''

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