Tuesday, December 15, 2015

A Most Unusual Board Game

"I've seen things you've only seen in your nightmares. Things you can't even imagine. Things you can't even see. There are things that hunt you in the night. Then something screams. Then you hear them eating, and you hope to God you aren't dessert. Afraid? You don't know what afraid is."

Alan (Robin Williams)

In the aftermath of Robin Williams' suicide last year, it was easy to reel off a list of his greatest acting achievements — "Awakenings," "Dead Poets Society," "The World According to Garp," "The Fisher King," "Good Morning, Vietnam," to name but a few — and start a debate over which was the best.

But, really, identifying those movies is easy because they were recognized at the time as being overall quality productions. Williams was always good — he was nominated for Oscars four times and even won once — but he was often made better by the people around him.

To have a truly representative discussion of his best performances, it seems to me it would be necessary to include movies that weren't generally well regarded, but in which he gave his customary brilliant performances. I wrote about such a movie a few days ago — 1980's "Popeye" — and another such movie premiered on this date in 1995 — "Jumanji."

That isn't really accurate, I guess, to suggest that "Jumanji" wasn't a good movie. "Jumanji" was a good movie, creative and all that. Critics were mixed, but audiences seemed to like it well enough. After all, it made more than $100 million.

At the time, I chose not to see it in the theater. What I had seen in the previews simply didn't appeal to me. I regretted that decision when I finally did see it on the small TV screen, though. The special effects of "Jumanji" really were quite good, well worth seeing on the big screen.

But the acting was pretty good, too.

The focus of the story was a young boy named Alan, the heir to a shoe manufacturing business. Several things happened early to set up the rest of the story, although that wasn't immediately clear. I won't go into detail about them here. If you haven't seen the movie, take my word for it. Everything eventually makes sense — even though there's a lot of crazy stuff that goes on. The movie does its best to trick you — and manages to do so. Be prepared for that.

Young Alan found a board game called Jumanji — how he discovered it is what established this movie as a fantasy — and he and a female friend sat down to play it one afternoon. Turned out Alan got sucked into the world of the game. The adults never figured out what happened to him, and his companion needed years of therapy to come to grips with what she had witnessed.

Fast forward 26 years — when Alan's house was being acquired by a woman (Bebe Neuwirth) and her late brother's children (Kirsten Dunst and Bradley Pierce). The children discovered the game and tried to play it — and, without realizing it, resumed the game that had been started in 1969.

And that summoned Alan back from wherever he had gone 26 years earlier — only he was an adult now, played by Williams. Well, physically he was an adult. Emotionally he was still that child from 1969.

I'm sure that kind of role was too juicy for Williams to pass up.

And really, I can't imagine anyone else playing the role except Robin Williams.

There are roles that are like that. They might have gone to other actors, but they were played so well by the people who were cast in them that you simply can't imagine anyone else playing the role.

Of course, Robin Williams was such a unique talent that it is really hard to imagine anyone else playing any of the roles Williams played in his life. He always put his personal, manic stamp on every role he played — in the movies or on TV.

He was one of a kind, and he is missed.