Zathura (2005) / Fantasy-Sci Fi
MPAA Rated: PG for some language and mild violence
Running Time: 113 min.
Cast: Jonah Bobo, Josh Hutcherson, Tim Robbins, Dax Shepard, Kristen Stewart, Frank Oz (voice)
Director: Jon Favreau
Screenplay: David Koepp, John Kamps (based on the book by Chris Van Allsburg)
I've heard people knocking Zathura for being a rip-off of Jumanji, and while I can certainly see that both films have strikingly similar premises, it should be mentioned that Zathura is based on the book sequel to Jumanji, both written and illustrated by Chris Van Allsburg. It's not as evident that the movies are related to one another, as the makers of the film version of Jumanji left out a key component of the book that eventually became the inspiration for the sequel. Nevertheless, Zathura works exceptionally well as a stand-alone adventure. One shouldn't dismiss this as a Jumanji retread; Zathura is the better film.
Like Jumanji, Zathura revolves around a board game that brings forth real-life dangers, wild and fantastic. Danny (Bobo, Around the Bend) and Walter (Hutcherson, Kicking & Screaming) are two young siblings that discover the old board game in the basement of their father's not-quite-renovated house. The game itself seems simple: two players take turns racing their rocket ships to the world of Zathura; whoever gets their first is the winner. Things aren't so simple when the game gets underway, as the boys find their living room torn up by a meteor shower that nearly kills them. Despite the fact that nearly every move in the game brings forth more mysterious and dangerous aspects to the house, the boys are forced to play. Their house is isolated in space itself, with no chance to get back home until the game reaches its conclusion. With renegade robots, carnivorous lizard aliens, and many other perilous situations that occur, the boys find that getting to the end may not be a sure thing.
Actor-turned-director Jon Favreau is fast becoming one of the better family film makers working in Hollywood today. Although he started off with two adult films, Swingers and Made, both good for the modest stories they were, it is in his last two films, the family-friendly Christmas story, Elf, and now Zathura, that Favreau gets to finally show off that he has a flair for juvenile fare. By "juvenile", I certainly don't mean inferior; I mean that Favreau can see his stories through a child's eyes, where a sense of wonder, horror, and mystery still exists in everyday objects and places. In many ways, Zathura feels like a Spielberg creation, and while Favreau may not have the prodigious conception of Spielberg when it comes to making a truly magical movie, he does have a great knack for getting superb and very realistic performances from his child actors, which is something Spielberg has sometimes struggled to do.
Also like Spielberg's most memorable family films, Zathura is ruled by special effects and theater-shaking sound. While they are certainly impressive, they are never gratuitous. When the boys look out of the home to discover they are in the rings of Saturn (or a Saturn-like planet), it is a truly awe-inspiring image that opens up the infinite possibilities of the game. When aliens attack the home, you literally feel the rumble and the imminent danger of the situation. Even scenes where there are no special effects or thunderous sounds are effective. When young Danny is cruelly sent by his brother down into the dark basement, it is one of the more intense moments of the film, even though we know nothing bad will happen down there. Again, Favreau films this with childlike thinking, which means being alone in a dark and quiet place is one of the scariest things of all.
Zathura is predictable to a certain point, and the home invasion sequence by the reptilian Zorgons drags on much longer than necessary, but just when you think that the story's ideas have petered out and the movie is going to go into coast mode to the finish, a new story wrinkle emerges to keep us reeled in again. Although the film will primarily appeal to younger, more impressionable viewers, adults that enjoy stories of imagination and marvel will also find that Zathura, like the game itself, holds far more adventure inside than the picture on the box would initially indicate.
©2005 Vince Leo