As many people in the know (read: parents with kids) are probably aware, Zathura is a sequel to 1995's hit fantasy film Jumanji. Both are based on the awe-inspiring picture book worlds of children's author/illustrator Chris Van Allsburg (whose work also inspired the movie The Polar Express).
Zathura concentrates on a pair of squabbling young brothers: introverted, imaginative Danny (Jonah Bobo) and sporty, bullying Walter (Josh Hutcherson). Their divorced dad (Tim Robbins, showing off the latest in what seems like an unbroken stream of standout cameos) has moved them into a hulking old house out in the suburbs. Still smarting over the separation of their parents, the boys are angry, unruly and generally unhappy. One afternoon, with stressed-out dad called into the office on an emergency, the boys are left to their own devices.
Tensions being what they are, it isn't long before Walter has stuffed his younger brother into the house's dumbwaiter and sent him on a one-way trip to the dark and scary basement. There, Danny discovers a magical antique board game called “Zathura.” Danny and Walter begin playing the enticing, automated game and--before you can say “Hey, isn't this the same plot to Jumanji?”--are thrust into a space-age fantasy world along with their sullen teenage sister (Kristen Stewart).
More than just a version of Jumanji set in outer space, Zathura corrects and crystallizes a lot of the ideas that the feature film version of Jumanji more or less bobbled. For starters, there isn't a trace of Robin Williams to be found in the cast--which, these days, almost always counts as an improvement.
The script by David Koepp (War of the Worlds, Spider-Man, The Lost World: Jurassic Park) is a streamlined affair, expanding on Van Allsburg's original without inflating it too far out of shape (like Robert Zemeckis' abominable Polar Express adaptation). Basically, the boys are forced to play through the game, encountering assorted extraterrestrial menaces (meteor showers, rogue robots, flesh-eating Zorgons) in an attempt to get back home. The simple plot, however, allows the filmmakers to concentrate a little more on the film's message. Danny and Walter, our scrap-happy siblings, must learn to work together in order to navigate the game's many menaces. Today's word, kids, is “cooperation.”
At times, it would be nice if the boys were a little more active in their own fate. The random nature of the game doesn't allow them too many opportunities to do much more than keep pushing buttons on the game and hoping for the best. Eventually, though, the boys are called upon to make a few grown-up decisions in their battle to save themselves and their house (and their frozen sister and a lost astronaut) from the evil Zorgons.
Koepp's script is laced with some surprisingly witty, pop culture-savvy dialogue, targeting both kids and their guardians. “I should never have rented that copy of Thirteen,” wails the boys' teenage sister after dad nixes her plans to stay out late with friends.
Director Jon Favreau (Swingers, Elf) really steps up to the big-time, confidently piloting a vehicle that relies heavily on special effects. The low-key approach Favreau developed in his earlier films helps out immensely here by not overselling the film's gee-whiz factor. The film, economically, takes place entirely within the boys' home as it hurtles through space being progressively demolished by assorted astronomical threats. The medium-budget effects are impressive enough and should bring a smile of wonder to children and adults raised on the worlds of Spielberg and Lucas. From the stunning arts-and-crafts-style of the home to the amusingly retro '50s design of the game and its contents, Zathura has got style on its side.
Although the plot is rather preordained, Favreau manages to work up a palpable tension in the film. In fact, some of the tenser moments with the lizard-like Zorgons creeping through the house looking for kids to eat may be a bit too scary for the more junior space cadets out there.
Until now, it's been a struggle to translate the borderline surreal worlds of Chris Van Allsburg into movies. Despite the money they made, Jumanji and Polar Express wandered far afield from their source material. Zathura is the first to capture a hint of Van Allsburg's simple, enchanting narratives and beautiful, jaw-dropping imagery.