Robin Williams (1951-2014): An institution of my childhood is gone

Robin Williams
The late Robin Williams (1951-2014)

This is a really late tribute, but I wanted to do justice to the ways Robin Williams has touched my life through his movies, so I refused to rush this.

At every stage of your life, there will be movies that you watched, music that you listened to, and books that you read that you associate most with that period of your life — and along with them, the celebrities and artistes who figured in those influential works that shaped your tastes and thinking. Robin Williams was one of those who belonged to my childhood.

News of his death broke while I was on holiday, and the morning that I woke up and read the headlines, cold water was thrown on my previously content holiday mood. It didn’t exactly ruin my holiday, but I felt a sense of loss, because he represented something dear and sweet to me. He was a heavy feature in my early memories of movies, and his death felt like the destruction of a childhood and comedy icon that was supposed to be there forever, or at least until the ripest, oldest age. And I say destruction, because he did not go quietly, peacefully into the night, but sought it himself as a means to an end — which made it much harder to stomach, knowing that a man that brought so much laughter to others was himself in the depths of despair.

The Robin Williams I remember most fondly is the one in Jumanji. This was a movie that I was either 7 (or 8 or 9 or 10) when I first watched it, and it creeped me out at that impressionable age, because I literally could not get past the first hour of the movie. If memory serves me right, I recorded it when it was showing on TV, and someone stopped it halfway, so I only got to the part where Robin Williams’ character had just come back as an adult and found out that his parents were dead.

The image that stayed most clearly in my mind therefore was that of Robin Williams’ younger character getting sucked into the game board in a scene from a horror movie, while Bonnie Hunt’s younger character runs out of the house screaming whilst being chased by bats. Add in the thumping heartbeat that crescendoed whenever the game was doing especially scary things, and I definitely swore off all creepy board games lying around in mysterious places (though of course I never found any, since I don’t live in a movie).

Robin Williams as Alan Parrish in Jumanji. (Young Kristen Dunst is in the movie too.)

Yet, the plot was so fascinating that I never stopped wishing I could finish watching it, despite the movie giving me the heebie jeebies. It became this great mystery of my childhood: what happened in Jumanji? So when I found out my neighbour had the VHS tape and I finally finished the film when I was 13 or 14, the delayed gratification made it feel like a greater sense of accomplishment than it probably should have been. But it had a really satisfying ending, because everything reset and everyone got a happy ending, which I believe I mentioned before is my favourite type of movie ending. (If you ignore the part that years later, someone else finds the game washed up on a beach and probably picks it up and plays with it.) After that, it became one of those movies I watched over and over again, probably to make up for the years spent not knowing how it ended.

The other Robin Williams that I remember most clearly is the one in Bicentennial Man (AND HOLY CRAP I LITERALLY *JUST* GOT WHY THE MOVIE WAS NAMED BICENTENNIAL MAN. BECAUSE HE LIVED 200 YEARS. HOLY CRAP). Before now, I always thought vaguely that a Bicentennial Man was some sort of robot, because he played a robot in the movie. (What can I say: I was 11! And when I was older, I didn’t think any further about it.)

Robin Williams as robot-with-feelings Andrew Martin in Bicentennial Man
Robin Williams as robot-with-feelings Andrew Martin in Bicentennial Man

Sudden, belated revelations aside, it was one of the rare few movies my mother brought me to an actual cinema to watch, so naturally it made an impression on me. I remember not being touched by the love story between him and his little mistress’ granddaughter — in fact, I was quite icked out by it — but more of his struggles to be acknowledged as human.

Hook was another childhood fascination, because it was also one of those movies where my viewing was cut short till I finished it many years later — though for some reason, I wasn’t as fervoured about it as I was Jumanji. It has been lambasted as one of Steven Spielberg’s worst films, and I don’t really know why, though I suppose if you were to compare it to E.T. and Saving Private Ryan and Indiana Jones and Schindler’s List, of course it would fall behind. But I loved the story of Peter Pan, and watching a “what-if” version of a Peter Pan who left Neverland behind and grew up was amazing. I think it was also the first movie that introduced to me the concept of “what-if”s outside canon. Before that, I thought all movies and books ended when they ended.

Robin Williams as older Peter Pan in Hook
Robin Williams as older Peter Pan in Hook

I remember the Genie in Aladdin of course. Thing is, when you’re young, you don’t really know (or care) about the voice actors behind your favourite cartoon characters; you only know they are your favourite characters. Now that I’m older and I know, I can recognise the humourous traits that he brought to Genie and appreciate his role in it. But when I was younger, it didn’t matter.

Robin Williams as Genie in Aladdin (1992)
Robin Williams as Genie in Aladdin (1992)

I have yet to touch on his greatest hits — Dead Poets Society and Good Morning, Vietnam among them — but I did watch Good Will Hunting last year, which I reviewed before. He was amazing in it, so much more somber and quietly sad than the funnyman I was used to. I’m glad he won at least an Oscar in his life, and it was for this role.

Robin Williams as Sean Maguire and Matt Damon as Will Hunting in Good Will Hunting
Robin Williams as Sean Maguire and Matt Damon as Will Hunting in Good Will Hunting

The Angriest Man in Brooklyn was the last film that was released before his death. Sadly, it was dull and unfunny, except for one great scene with James Earl Jones, and when I first watched it, I was thinking “Why, Robin Williams, WHY???” How was I to know that he would die two months after I watched it? It makes me sad, because I always thought he would live till a ripe old age, and he still had plenty of time to redeem himself and be great again. Now that he’s gone, the world has lost a dearly loved source of happiness, who never seemed anything less than one of the kindest, gentlest men to have lived.

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