Jack and Jumanji

Robin Williams, the eternal kid

On the weekend I had my daughter (my son being unwell) and amidst trips out for lunch, to the park, and blackberry picking, we watched a couple of Robin Williams films. I decided it was important for her to know why I wanted to watch his films, although I omitted to tell her the way he died. She’s 9. Discussions on depression and the devastating impacts it can have can wait a few years yet.

She chose Jack and, as I hadn’t seen it in some time, agreed. I remembered enjoying it, despite a) knowing it wasn’t the greatest film, b) marked a significant departure and fall of a great filmmaker, and c) was widely despised. I chose Jumanji as it’s an evergreen movie.

Watching them both in such close proximity brought out an interesting parallel. Robin Williams’ characters are often eternal kids. In Jack he is, quite literally, a child. One who, for plot reasons, ages at four times the normal rate, enabling Robin Williams to do what he does best. He is convincingly puerile without it ever seeming inappropriate or weird. It could have been so much worse — a grown man, hanging out with 10 year old boys — but it is done well, insofar as such a thing can be. Williams could imbue a character with a sense of childlike wonder, while eschewing the childishness. There was a sadness in his eyes which is so horribly apparent now.

The final scene of Jack is far more painful that it was intended. As a 17 year old playing as a 68 year old, Robin Williams plays a character visibly older than he would ever be. And the speech he gives is so perfect, it hurts.

A beautiful montage of Robin Williams clips over the audio of the final speech from Jack

If you ignore the surrounding knowledge of Jack — that it was directed by the vision behind Apocalypse Now, The Godfather Parts I and II, The Conversation, The Outsiders… I could go on… — if you ignore that, then it’s a sentimental film showcasing Robin Williams’ unique style. And I love sentiment.

In Jumanji, if you don’t know the story, Williams plays Alan Parrish, a boy who is trapped inside a board game for 26 years and emerges a man, but without any social skills or education beyond that which he learned in the jungle inside the game. A boy who had distant parents, and a future at a boarding school to which he did not want to go. His life is tragic, but as a child watching the film, that doesn’t register so much. What we get is an adventure with him, and the two children (including a young Kirsten Dunst) who continue the game he started. It’s a child’s version of It’s A Wonderful Life (thanks to Twitterer @ejrdavies for pointing out that parallel).

Williams’ Alan is a boy out of time, unused to society, who has had to grow up outside, but barely on the inside. He’s a man, but mentally is still childlike.

And that’s what Robin Williams time and again brought to his roles. He let us see the world through a child’s eyes. With that sadness there was a sparkle. In Bicentennial Man that “child” was a self-aware robot. In Hook, he reclaims his lost youth as Peter Pan. In Dead Poet’s Society he inspires youths to great things. In Mrs Doubtfire he is willing to do anything for his children. Time and again he showed us a world in which innocence is still real, even through the pain, even through the suffering.

Taken as a body of work, so often his films seem to be about life. About making the most of it.

Carpe diem. Seize the day. Make your life spectacular.

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