Star Wars aside, Zathura would have been my favorite movie when I was ten. Here’s a film that is stuffed with cleverness and imagination – one that taps into some of the most primal childhood fantasies of adventure. I think that kids are going to love this movie, but adults will enjoy it just as much for the way it so nicely brings back those magical feelings of youthful fantasy.
Tim Robbins plays a divorced father with three children. His sons Walter (Josh Hutcherson) and Danny (Jonah Bobo) are constantly bickering or competing for attention. Adolescent daughter Lisa (Panic Room’s Kristen Stewart) is content to sleep all day and ignore everyone else. When work calls Dad away on a Saturday afternoon, he puts Lisa in charge of watching the boys. She can’t be bothered to actually do the job, so it’s not long before they’re getting on each other’s nerves. To be mean, Walter forces Danny to go into the scary basement, where he discovers an old board game. It’s called “Zathura” and it is some kind of space adventure. He brings it upstairs and starts to play.
The game is simple enough. You turn a small key on the front and a spinner indicates the number of spaces to be moved. The pieces – little metal spaceships – move by themselves on a small track. Once they have reached the proper space, the board spits out a card. The first card Danny gets says “Meteor Shower: Take Evasive Action.” Suddenly, little meteors start bombarding the living room. The game is alive! When the boys open the front door, they discover that their home is floating in space. The only way to get back home is to finish playing the game.
Each card brings with it some kind of peril that must be faced: a giant robot, a horde of lizard people, a cryogenic spell that temporarily affects Lisa. There are some helpful things too, including the arrival of a stranded astronaut (Dax Shepard of Without a Paddle and “Punk’d”) who helps the boys finish their journey. He also attracts the eye of Lisa, once she gets herself unfrozen, that is. The adventures are amazing, but not nearly as difficult as just getting along. Walter and Danny discover that it will take their full cooperation in order to get home safely.
Zathura is based on a book by Chris Van Allsburg, whose “Jumanji” similarly featured a board game come to life. Jumanji - the movie – was fun, but it also tried a little too hard to be technically impressive; the special effects scenes far overshadowed everything else. Zathura, on the other hand, hits just the right note of playfulness. There’s an enjoyable anticipation as you wait to see what each turn will bring. In that way, the movie is almost like a game itself because it’s constantly keeping you involved. And no matter how grandiose events become, the emphasis is always on the two brothers who are playing Zathura. More accurately, the emphasis is on the two brothers who are being played by the game.
Director Jon Favreau (Elf) does something really interesting by essentially putting the story in a time warp. It’s set in the current day, yet the family house is quite old and the father’s car is vintage. Similarly, Favreau uses an effective combination of modern CGI effects and old school visual design. For instance, the robot looks like something about an old 50’s sci-fi movie, yet the outer space scenes are absolutely authentic looking. This makes Zathura an enjoyable movie to physically look at. Much of the joy is in the details: the way the menacing robot is clumsy on his feet, the old-fashioned detail of the board itself, and so on.
Adding another important touch is the film’s humor. There are some silly moments guaranteed to elicit giggles from young viewers, but there are some sly jokes for the adults. When the father objects to his daughter’s use of the term “hooking up,” she quips: “We should have never rented [the gritty adolescent drama] Thirteen!” The way her flirtation with the astronaut plays out will go over many kids’ heads, but it provides a big laugh for the grownups.
It’s kind of interesting that there are only five people in the whole movie. Tim Robbins creates a realistic, sympathetic dad in only a few short scenes, and Dax Shepard brings the right note of goofy heroism to the astronaut. The best performances belong to the young actors, though. In this movie, the kids act like real kids. Josh Hutcherson, Jonah Bobo, and Kristen Stewart nail the various youthful emotions they are called upon to play: Danny’s desire to please, Walter’s desire to taunt his annoying little brother, and Lisa’s complete apathy for anything other than herself. Their performances make everything else that happens more meaningful.
Zathura doesn’t have the high profile of some of this holiday season’s other family pictures. I hope that people will seek it out. Like last year’s The Polar Express (also based on a Van Allsburg book), Zathura exudes originality. It understands how powerful the imagination can be, especially to a child. This is one of the most flat-out fun movies I’ve seen all year.
( 1/2 out of four)
Zathura is rated PG for fantasy action and peril, and some language. The running time is 1 hour and 42 minutes.
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