Book to Screen: Jumanji, The Polar Express and Zathura
By Paul Wulff
On this second edition of ‘Book to Screen’, I have the honor to review three films based off of an author’s work. This time, Chris Van Allsburg’s books Jumanji , The Polar Express and Zathura. In my first review of Where the Wild Things Are, I had blamed The Polar Express for successfully beginning adaptations of children’s books to feature films, but taking a step back, a movie that came before all of this was Jumanji. In order to maintain a time line of these films, let me divulge into the world of Jumanji first.
In 1995, I was 16 and not into movies as much as now. In fact, my first job was at Hollywood Video (unfortunately now an Auto Zone) in the following year of 1996 when my movie knowledge was vastly expanded. So my review of this film will be from two aspects: the 16 year old who drove the multi-colored Dodge Omni and a 31 year old Special Education teacher.
As that 16 year old in 1995, I was too much into the return of Batman in Batman Forever with the addition of Robin and my favorite villain, The Riddler. I had just successfully seen Batman Forever for a fourth time, but I remember when I heard about the Jumanji adaptation my first thought was ‘Reading Rainbow.’ I first heard the story on PBS through that very show and loved it. This story about a board game that comes to life with a jungle theme was a great concept and as I played different board games myself, in the long since defunct family game night, I thought about how tough a survival that would be if I was, let’s say, the mouse in Mouse Trap or one of the players in Clue. So as soon as I could, I wanted my hands on the story myself to take it all in. Still, to this day, I love the illustrations and the story. I also loved the fact that in the film, Robin Williams, was to be the main character named Alan Perrish. As that 16 year old, I loved the choice because I grew up idolizing him in Popeye and later in life in Dead Poets Society and Good Will Hunting but as the film buff and 31 year old Special Education teacher, I had no idea where an adult main character came from since the book had to do with children playing the game.
The plot of the film was easy to understand as to why Robin Williams was there as character because he was a child who played the game but was “sucked into it” and never heard from again. The plot thickened because the game’s other player, Sarah Whittle, was so scared at the result of the sudden disappearance that she left the game unfinished, leaving the young boy trapped inside the game. Years later, siblings Judy (played by Kirsten Dunst, fresh off of Interview with a Vampire) and Peter Shepherd, discovered it and began playing that very game again that was left unfinished. As a result of playing, an adult Alan Perrish emerged from the game. He heeded warnings as to what he was doing to survive and that the world of Jumanji and that the kids were tampering with something extremely dangerous and that the children should not have started playing that game. This was where the theme of curiosity came out.
In a plot twist, the two children and Alan were suddenly stuck in the middle of the game because of a fourth game piece. Enter Sarah Whittle. Judy Peter and Alan had to find her in order to finish the original game because if they couldn’t finish, then the game would continue to wreak havoc over their lives. Bonnie Hunt, who played the adult version of Sarah Whittle, was a pleasant addition to the film. She, after years of therapy, believed that Alan was dead and that the images of him being sucked into the game was all her imagination until she was brought back to the very house and the very game she ran from years earlier. With reluctance, she played.
In order to not give away much more of the film, comedy scenes were added into the film courtesy of police officer, David Alan Grier (In Living Color) and real estate agent played by Bebe Neworth (Lilith from Fraiser and the Broadway performances of Chicago) as well as action scenes complete with a stampede complete with an out of shape Rhinoceros. As mentioned in the Wild Things review, the scenes that were added to the film (and there were A LOT) made the film funny and I do not think that was the intent of Chris Van Allsburg. Also, I am not sure if the ending was also the intent of Chris Van Allsburg as well because it slingshots around to the very beginning of the movie again after some various floods, poisonous plants, spiders and an admission of love from Alan to Sarah. Confused? I was.
After this film concluded, the 16 year old liked it because of Robin Williams and that silly Rhino (that and I also wondered what time Batman Forever was playing). As the 31 year old Special Education Teacher, I believe that the source material was held close to the film and with some pretty good special effects for that time, it truly was pulled off. Were the additional scenes added to the film close to the source material? Yes. Was some of the film campy? Yes. Was some of it a bit over the top? Yes. Despite those downfalls, was this film meant for adults? No, of course not. The film’s demographic was represented well for the film. Granted there are some spots of mild peril (a character getting poisoned awaiting a cure), but with a parent next to them throughout the film, they will do just fine.
Moving to the second of our adapted films: The Polar Express. I had a lot of issues with this movie right away. Tom Hanks, for some reason, got it in his head that he didn’t need anyone to work with him. He played a total of 4 characters in the film. To me, that is unacceptable. It is not as believable to me that one actor can change his voice enough to play 4 different characters. That bugged me in this film that Tom Hanks did that. Could the production company not get anyone else to play the conductor, Santa, the homeless man and one of the children? Maybe they blew all the money on Tom and the motion capture effects and could not afford anyone else. Tom Hanks did the same thing four years earlier when he was in Cast Away, a movie I had a lot of issues with as well but that is a different time and place.
I love the book, another Caldecott Winner (as was Jumanji) for illustration, was brilliantly designed and made the images pop using the dark tones of a night train gliding through to the North Pole. The film did have this but what they added to the movie was the thoughts that Santa did not exist. That the bells that were to ring outside his home, would not come because he was at the age that he did not exist. For whatever reason, this was why The Polar Express came to his home. Reluctantly, the boy decides to come aboard after being thrown some guilt by the conductor who asked for a ticket that the boy thought didn’t exist but once he discovered he had the ticket was curious to see what was to happen next.
Robert Zemeckis, the director and writer, for some odd reason, wanted to add some mystery to the film and had the conductor hole punch letters in different children’s tickets throughout the movie as a way to keep the adult occupied until the big reveal at the end where a life lesson was individualized for each child. That, to me, was unnecessary. Although the addition to the importance of the tickets added to the plot of the film when the main character found a girl’s missing ticket (with whom was never given a name) and he had to find her to give it back to her. The film got a bit unrealistic when he followed the conductor and the girl throughout the train, on top of the train and onto the front of it as well all in their pajamas, of course. As a parent, wouldn’t you think that the kid would freeze or fall off? Neither happened but, again, this was a magical train and reality had to be thrown out that proverbial “window.” The other additional characters that I believed were unnecessary were the other children in the film (especially the nasally one voiced by Tom Hanks), the magical homeless man who traveled atop the train (again, voiced by Tom Hanks), the ice sequence where the train almost derailed (most likely added to show the 3D effects) AND the most obvious unnecessary addition was the Aerosmith song and their elf incarnations towards the end.
The motion capture effects were very realistic which made me question why they would not have just made the film live action. The additional scenes added to the theme of the film which was to never stop believing (enter Journey song here) however, some of them were annoying to me. The hot chocolate scene with the song made me also pray that it was not going to be turned into a musical. Despite its downfalls, the film was marketed as a Winter release, in traditional theaters, in 3D and in IMAX, which made the film a lot of money but was still out grossed 2 to 1 by Disney/Pixar’s The Incredibles (where my own money went to that weekend). The 31 year old teacher thinks that this movie was one big, “Look what we can do!” That thought was supported when it was heralded as an Oscar nominee for three Academy Awards: Best Sound, Best Sound Editing, and Best Original Song for "Believe" but came away empty handed. The best thing that this film did was improve the book’s sales and again, thanks to good marketing, the book was reissued with a bell from Santa’s sleigh. This film is a tad more kid friendly than Jumanji and can be shown to any age, young and old, which again is thanks to the source material because no one can go wrong with Christmas. The only downfall was that it was made with the wrong intentions.
The third book that was made into a feature film written by Chris Van Allsburg was Zathura. A film, not too many people know, was directed by Jon Favreau (Iron Man and Iron Man 2). I believe not too many people knew about this book because they tossed it aside as a copy of Jumanji and that it was not as regarded as original. Many thought that he was just copying the same plot and theme as its predecessor and it was thought of as such. I, in fact, had never heard of the book until the movie previews hit the screens of my part-time job working as an usher at AMC Theaters in 2005. I did say the same thing as some of the critics that it looked like “Jumanji in space.”
The film had the new “It Girl” Kristen Stewart (known for her roles in the Twilight films) but at the time was previously known for Catch that Kid and Panic Room. One day at work, I decided to pop in and watch it. I LOVED IT! Everything about the movie had me immediately. First thing that popped out to me was the old fashioned metal game board. Yes, it had moving pieces like Jumanji but I remember playing games like this at my grandmother’s house and seeing old games like this that my father used to play. I also had a connection with the movie because of it’s science fiction theme of space. In between my seventh and eighth grade year, I was fortunate to go to Space Academy (Space Camp for Middle School students), so I loved watching space themed films. The movie kept very close to its source material even more than Jumanji. The reactions from the two brothers when the cards were pulled to see what devastation was coming, Kristen Stewart’s role as the sister and reluctant baby sitter, the special effects and the events leading up to the arrival and interaction with a space man (along with plot twist similar to Jumanji ), were all spot on. As in all films that were adapted from the book, they added to the source material and in this film, it was seamless. This film was also in conjunction with the news that Jon Favreau was in talks to direct Iron Man. I was sold that this actor (Swingers) turned director could do it. One area of concern for parents is that 15-year old Kristen Stewart is in this film in a tight shirt and very short boxers. Now, teen boys would have no problems with this but parents with children under 10 may think it is a bit inappropriate. The other part that comes of some concern is that Kristen’s character, Lisa, tells her brothers to shut up a lot and does not treat them with too much respect until she witnesses the effects of the game. Her other mild language faults comes up but they fall into the “stupid, idiot, moron” categories. The mild peril that comes up are the very realistic aliens that come out and terrorize the kids but humor comes to the rescue and the scariness goes away (just make sure t. This film is a lot more serious that Jumanji and it is not a film that parades around like Polar Express and touts its accomplishments in each scene.
In conclusion, I would be extremely honored if three of my books were optioned for feature films. Chris Van Allsburg, as great an award winning illustrator and author, should be proud of all of the works of the writers, directors and special effects coordinators did to bring his works to life. For its time, Jumanji is great and the book is represented well but because of Robin Williams, humor takes the precedence which, to me, is not the intent of the book. The Polar Express was too commercialized and a lot of its weakness was because of Tom Hanks being the majority of the main roles and the addition to a lot of scenes just to show off the technologies in different settings which does not translate well to the home theater. Zathura is what I call a hidden gem and is quite frankly, my pick as the best adapted book of Chris Van Allsburg.
Thank you for taking the time to read my reviews of Chris Van Allsburg’s works from book to screen. I am completely humbled and would like to thank Eric for the opportunity to showcase my thoughts on these adaptations not only from a teacher’s standpoint , but also from a parent and a fan of both movies and reading.
TEACHER LETTER GRADES:
Jumanji : B-
The Polar Express: C