Every so often, there’s a complaint from animation fans that American animation is limited to just two genres: superhero shows and comedies. While it’s not entirely accurate, those are undoubtedly the dominant styles. So it’s nice to see a show like Jumanji, which is more adventure and fantasy-based, even if it’s not the most perfect show in the world.
The TV series by Adelaide Productions (Jackie Chan Adventures, The Boondocks) is based on the 1995 live action film of the same name. As the movie did reasonably well in theaters, it seemed only natural that it would get a spin-off. However, in this particular case, this concept seems better suited for animation, since there aren’t any conspicuous CG or green screens and the premise lends well to a wide variety of stories that can be milked from it. That premise involves a pre-teen brother and sister, Peter and Judy Shepherd, who discover an old board game, Jumanji, in their new house. Much to their surprise, upon playing the game, they’re transported into the game, which takes place in a dense jungle. Peter and Judy are in immediate danger as all sorts of jungle creatures attack them, but luckily the middle-aged, bearded Alan Parrish saves them. Alan played the game back in the ‘60s, so it goes without saying he’s been here a while. The three unite to struggle their way back to the real world.
I haven’t seen the Jumanji film since I was a teenager, so my memory is rusty on whether the series stays true to the movie. As such, I won’t be extensively comparing it to the film. In the cartoon’s case, there is a bit of a formula to the stories, even if it’s not as blatant as some shows. There’s always a contrivance to Alan not being able to return to the real world (or, if he does get there, it’s short-lived for various reasons), allowing Peter and Judy to always venture back into Jumanji to try to rescue him again. Before the two are sucked into Jumanji, they’re given the clue of how to get back to the real world, with cryptic statements like “a trick in rhyme saves time” or “the more you learn the less you know and that’s the only way to go.” The episodes concern the two trying to figure out the riddles or meet certain conditions amidst the hair-raising action sequences. As expected from some cartoons of the time period, a couple of the riddles cause Peter and Judy to learn a lesson (for example, in one episode, Peter is able to escape from Jumanji by reluctantly teaming up with his bully), though thankfully it’s not obnoxiously in-your-face about it.
The best episodes from these first thirteen include: “Stormy Weather,” a Groundhog Day-esque episode where Alan keeps dying in various methods and Peter and Judy keep traveling back in time to correct their mistakes so Alan will stay alive; “Gift”, where Peter and Judy struggle to find an antidote for some centipede venom affecting Alan; and “Law of Jumanji”, where a recurring villain, big game hunter Van Pelt, inhabits Peter’s body and causes havoc in the real world. There’s also an episode where the trio come across the “operator” of Jumanji, Professor Ibsen, who can manipulate pretty much everything in the game from his lab. Keep in mind this series predates The Matrix Reloaded!
Upon seeing the DVD cover for this release, you might think the show was made by Klasky-Csupo. It’s not, but you’d be forgiven for thinking that, since Everett Peck did the character designs for the series, and he also worked on the Klasky-Csupo series Duckman. I like the designs, but I’ll be the first to admit they’re an acquired taste. The animation is serviceable but could’ve used more variety in the facial expressions and poses. As for the audio side of the presentation, the drum-heavy tribal soundtrack (by Jim Latham, who would later compose for Jackie Chan Adventures) fits the tone of the show. Most of the voice acting is acceptable. Debi Derryberry voices Judy, the older sister, and sounds different enough from her Jimmy Neutron voice to prove her versatility. Ashley Johnson is cross-cast as the male Peter, and is perfectly authentic since she was an actual teenager when the series was in production. I also dug Tim Curry as J.H. Slick, a shifty, caveat emptor-channeling merchant who appears in many episodes; Curry can infuse life into most any role, and this is no exception. Sadly, the only role I felt was miscast is Alan. If you’re at all familiar with Bill Fagerbakke’s role as Patrick Star in SpongeBob, you can’t help but hear that dumb character’s voice in some of Alan’s lines, which doesn’t fit Alan’s tough, jungle-savvy demeanor. He also doesn’t sound anything remotely like Robin Williams, who played Alan in the live action version. While it would’ve felt like typecasting, since he’s subbed for Williams before, I think Dan Castellaneta would’ve been a better choice.
Like many Mill Creek releases, there are no special features; it’s just the episodes and nothing else. I wasn’t expecting anything for a mid 90s cartoon show, but it would’ve been nice to get an interview from Everett Peck, if nothing else. The video quality is typically average for a pre-digital 1990s cartoon on DVD, though it could’ve been worse, considering there are thirteen episodes crammed on one disc.
If you’re tired of the same genres from much of American TV animation, check out Jumanji. It won’t redefine TV as we know it, but it was also very watchable and did a good job at the adventurous atmosphere, with its larger-than-life jungle creatures and calamitous situations. Plus, Mill Creek’s price for a niche release is just right; you get thirteen episodes for $10, and probably less in most cases. For that low price, how can you go wrong?