AAM at the Movies: The Fictitious Great Man of “Jumanji”

By Matthew McMullan
Jun 27 2024 |
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Just focus on the crazy jungle animals, not on the shoe factory in the film’s background.

It’s that time again: Time for AAM to watch another movie ostensibly about manufacturing. This time, we’ve screened 1995’s “Jumanji.” Is it a little silly? Does it have a couple of plot holes? Yes and yes. But it mostly holds up!  

Here’s the premise: “Jumanji” is the story of Alan, the teenage son of a wealthy and gruff New England industrialist (an important detail for our purposes) who in the 1960s digs a cursed board game – called, you guessed it, Jumanji – out of the ground at a construction site next to his dad’s shoe factory. That night at his family’s mansion, Alan and a friend make the mistake of playing it and, after an early unlucky roll of the dice, he’s literally sucked into the game’s fantastical and dangerous jungle setting. His friend panics and rushes out of the house; no one believes her story. Alan, MIA, is presumed dead, and his dad, assumed by everyone in town to have murdered him, diverts all his time and energy into finding his son. But he can’t be found! The kid’s trapped in the board game! And so the dad’s shoemaking business falters, the factory shutters and the town declines.  

Meanwhile, for decades Alan remains stranded in the jungle. In the 1990s, a new family moves into the long-abandoned mansion, their kids discover the game among boxes in the attic, roll the dice, and inadvertently free the long-lost Alan. He’s a grown up now, basically a Robinson Crusoe played by late, great Robin Williams, and he has an understandable fear of Jumanji. Nevertheless, he agrees to finish the game he started to rid his town of the exaggerated jungle animals it has unleashed – and put everything back to normal.

Despite all that, the movie has got a touch of reality, and it’s all about that shoe factory. Its opening scene sets it in a rosy America of yesteryear; a small New Hampshire town with clean streets lined with homes surrounded by picket fences, and an orderly town square surrounded by busy shops. Dad’s shoe factory is depicted as the community mainstay, a loadbearing institution of the local economy bustling with employees. This is not to say that midcentury New England was free of socioeconomic problems, but it did have an established shoe manufacturing industry (shoes, in this industry) that dated back centuries. And despite its warts – and places like the one depicted in “Jumanji” had legitimate warts – life was relatively good, and that was the reality for a lot of postwar factory towns. This is the slice of American life is shown in the first ten minutes (please ignore the bullies or the even earlier establishing scene set in the 19th century):

But, as mentioned, this all changes drastically when Alan disappears and his dad turns all of his attention to finding him. The movie gives all of about 30 seconds worth of dialogue to explaining this, but when the shoe factory fails, the town goes with it. When Alan returns, the place is populated with liquor stores and sex shops. There are lots of homeless people. The town is in disrepair. It’s not until he and the 90s kids (and also Bonnie Hunt, who plays his friend from back in the day, all grown up) finish the game that everything is reset; the movie’s timeline snaps back to the 1960s and a successful, prosperous town. With the world back in order, Alan grows up to take over the family business, and the movie ends back in the 90s again with the community thriving around its shoe factory.

And that’s where it goes off the rails.

No! “Jumanji” doesn’t become hard to believe when it immediately introduces a magic board game that manifests giant mosquitos and spiders, man-eating plants, or entire stampedes of zebras and rhinoceroses. I’ll swallow the magic board game. No, it becomes untethered from reality with the snapback to the ’60s at its conclusion. Until then, the movie had only implied it endorses the “great man” theory, which suggests history is driven by the actions of heroes and villains, whose individual actions shape the course of human events. Alan’s dad, the movie heretofore suggests, was the necessary component to keeping this New Hampshire factory town humming and once he was distracted by his son’s disappearance, it all went belly up.  

When the game is completed and the timeline resets, this great man theory endorsement is solidified. The jungle is contained, the factory continues to thrive, and prosperity continues uninterrupted with Alan’s dad (and then Alan) in charge.

And that’s just not the experience of American shoe manufacturing in the past 50 years. The size of the industry by employment has dropped precipitously since the 1970s, as shoemakers outsourced production to low-cost labor markets in Asia. Footwear manufacturing was not something Washington wanted to protect, and so it didn’t.

Thanks to the Berry Amendment there is a steady demand from the U.S. military for American-made shoes. There are even, in fact, hundreds of shoe factories still in the United States. But they are relatively small operations, making niche and expensive products, like the pair of well-made New Balance sneakers I own. But you likely won’t be finding many shoes made in the U.S. at Target or Walmart, if any at all. A 2021 analysis by the U.S. International Trade Commission observed the domestic footwear market is almost entirely supplied by imports, “which accounted for 95.9 percent of U.S. consumption” that year.

And let’s be honest; Unless he was the rare exception that defied the rule, Alan’s dad (or Alan himself) probably would have closed their New Hampshire factory and chased low-cost labor overseas, too.

None of this is to say you shouldn’t watch “Jumanji,” which is available on more than one streaming service. I watched it recently with my kids. Williams reportedly didn’t let his children, because he thought it was too scary. I dunno, my kids dug it. It’s not exactly high art but it is fun to watch, if only for the special effects – described by Williams as “Muppets on steroids” – and that actor’s performance.