I’m kind of perturbed at how Zathura is being dismissed by the movie going public as, “Jumanji in space.” Seriously folks, does Jumanji hold that big of a place in our collective hearts as a nation? The only thing the two films have in common is that they’re both based on books by noted children’s author/illustrator Chris Van Allsburg (The Polar Express) and that they both involve board games coming to life. That?s it. Do we say that Titanic is ?Romeo and Juliet on a boat” because they both involve doomed lovers? Do we say that Jaws is “Moby Dick with a shark?” Or that Blade: Trinity is “The Hunger minus lesbians”? Or that The Island is “Parts: The Clonus Wars with a budget?” Okay, maybe the last one is accurate, but Zathura is a fabulous family film that has little comparison.
Danny (Jonah Bobo) and Walter (Josh Hutcherson) are brothers that have little in common. Ten-year-old Walter loves sports and isn’t too interested in the “kiddy” things his six-year-old brother likes. Danny himself is battling his own fears and feels left out by his older brother. Their big sister (Kristen Stewart) just wants both of them out of her hair. The family is visiting their dad’s (Tim Robbins) new house. While dad’s out to get some work done, Danny and Walter are antagonizing each other. Walter sends his little brother to the scary basement where Danny finds an old, dusty board game called Zathura. He sets up the tin game board beside his brother and starts playing. Small rockets on poles lurch across the board according to a spinning number. Then a card pops out and says, “Meteor showers,” and sure enough their living room is deluged with fiery meteors (Danny yells to take “erasive action”). Walter is shocked to open the front door and discover their house isn’t parked neatly in the neighborhood but orbiting through the vastness of space. To get back home the squabbling brothers must complete the game, and along the way they’ll encounter giant robots, a lost astronaut (Dax Shepard), and the Zorgons, a race of aliens hungry for some warmth and some fresh meat.
The child acting is rather outstanding. The interaction between Bobo and Hutcherson (Kicking & Screaming) is great. Each really defines and shapes their character well, from Bobo’s whiny insecurity to Hutcherson’s disinterested anger and overt competitiveness. Stewart (Panic Room) leaves a very sizable impression as the agitated older sister. She has the looks and talent to explode in Hollywood in a few years, a la Rachel McAdams. Dax Shepard (Without a Paddle) is the biggest acting surprise. He gives a weighty and endearing performance as a father figure in the film, and he’s totally on the same wavelength with the movie’s tone.
Yes, Zathura gets a bit more conventional with its story as it draws toward the conclusion (trials of courage, learning from past mistakes, reconciliation), but there’s really only one kind of ending for this film. What did you expect from a 30-something page children’s book, half of which are drawings? Zathura may be predictable but it’s got a loose energy, a comedic zest, and a sense of wonder that elevate the familiar.
Smart family films are about as rare as they come. Zathura breaks the template of what “family film” means nowadays; it doesn’t go for cheap, tasteless jokes, it doesn’t hurl scattershot pop-culture references (seriously Shark Tale, are children going to be amused by a Scarface reference?). Refreshingly, the movie doesn’t have a single joke revolving around flatulence or someone getting hit in the nuts. This is a smart, good-natured family film that will thrill adults and children alike. John Favreau (Elf) is carving a really nice niche for himself directing these high quality family films that are in short supply. His direction is focused and his decisions are right on the money. He doesn’t overwhelm the film with an orgy of special effects. He gets the tone of this movie and never panders to his audience, but he keeps the pace bouncy and the tension racked. I was rapt in suspense during the Zorgon docking sequence, and yet Favreau can also illuminate the tensions of our childhood fears, like a dark basement. Favreau is proving himself to be a dynamite artist behind a lens.
Isolating the action inside the house definitely helps build the film’s drama. Instead of unleashing the crazy world of the jungle and watching it wreck havoc, Zathura keeps everything bottled up. This decision does wonders for the film’s suspense by giving a claustrophobic overtone. This is a movie more concerned with storytelling than loud special effects. In short, Zathura is light years beyond Jumanji.
The family dynamic feels exceptionally realistic, and the film has a terrific sense of humor. Siblings do behave this way, and Zathura captures their everyday conflicts in a meaningful way. The dialogue has a real zest to it but never feels trite or inauthentic. Mark my words, “Get me a juice box, biyatch,” will be the best movie line you hear all year. Zathura really soars because of its rib-tickling sense of humor. This isn’t Man Drops Banana Peel followed by Man Falls Down. No I?m talking about a consistent tone that’s sly and whimsical, complete with comedic payoffs for even inanimate objects. The various story elements really come together nicely. Zathura is a blast that will hard to beat this holiday season and beyond.
Favreau has directed yet another family film destined to become a classic. The thrills are thrilling, the comedy is whimsical and smart, the storytelling is careful and focused, the special effects are great, the acting is superb, and even the score really soars. This is just a delightful movie of all stripes and should please adventure-seekers of all ages. I was laughing and cheering from beginning to end and so was my theater. It’s a family film that proudly and refreshingly reminds us the possibilities of family films. Zathura is tremendous fun and one adventure that will suck you in instead of just sucking.
Nate’s Grade: B+
Posted on November 18, 2005, in 2005 Movies and tagged action, aliens, book, dax shephard, fantasy, jon favreau, josh hutcherson, kristen stewart, tim robbins. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.