Zathura is about two kids who play a board game that comes to life, and the grown-up they meet once they are trapped inside the game. If this already sounds a wee bit familiar, it could be because you are thinking of Jumanji, the movie featuring Robin Williams, Kirsten Dunst, and a whole lot of special effects that came out ten years ago. The similarity between the two films, story-wise, is no coincidence, since both are based on illustrated children's books by Chris Van Allsburg (who also wrote The Polar Express). In Jumanji, the board game threw the main characters into a jungle; in Zathura, the board game throws the main characters into outer space. But the films are guided by different sensibilities.
Jumanji, directed by former Lucasfilm bigwig Joe Johnston at a time when CGI was the hot new thing, emphasized the special effects. Zathura, however, is directed by Jon Favreau, an actor who was best known for the R-rated buddy movies he made with Vince Vaughn—including Swingers, which he wrote, and Made, which he also directed—before he took a sharp turn toward the family market two years ago with the surprisingly popular Will Ferrell holiday movie Elf. So, while Zathura still has plenty of special effects, you can sense that Favreau would rather keep the story grounded in the relationship between six-year-old Danny (Jonah Bobo) and ten-year-old Walter (Josh Hutcherson), two brothers who get on each other's nerves until they discover they literally need each other to survive.
Favreau, working from a script by David Koepp (Spider-Man, Jurassic Park) and John Kamps (The Borrowers) that significantly expands Van Allsburg's original story, starts things on a very ordinary note—so ordinary it's kind of dull, actually—as Danny and Walter compete for the attention of their recently divorced father (Tim Robbins). Walter is good at playing catch, but Danny must settle for being told that he has a good imagination. Danny wants to watch Spongebob Squarepants, but Walter sneers that that stuff is for "babies," so he changes the channel to something sports-related. Finally something happens that interferes with Dad's work, so he steps outside and leaves the boys to the care of their big sister Lisa (Panic Room's Kristen Stewart), who has reached that stage of adolescence where days are for sleeping and nights are for hanging out with friends your parents find suspicious.
Lisa is still in bed, sleeping the day away, when Danny snoops around their dad's new house and finds an old board game under the basement steps. He takes it to the living room to show it to his older brother, who remains indifferent. And then Danny turns a key, pushes a button, and watches a number spin on the game's counter. One of the mechanical pieces moves along its track the designated number of spaces, and then a card pops out—a card that says, "Meteor shower: Take evasive action." The hot stones that slice through the ceiling and into the floor finally get Walter's attention, and when the boys look outside, they discover that their house is floating in space, apparently near one of Saturn's rings.
Too late, the boys discover that the only way back home is to finish the game. And that means many more turns of the key and pressings of the button, each of which carries with it the risk that a new card may or may not signal something even more hazardous and terrifying. On the down side, the boys encounter a rampaging robot (voice of Frank Oz) and some creepy lizard-like aliens called Zorgons, all of whom do much damage to the house. On the up side, they pick up a "stranded astronaut" (Punk'd star Dax Shepard) who seems to know how to deal with the Zorgons, and who offers some moral guidance as well.
In an age when digital effects have become so common they're not really special any more, Zathura plays on the audience's nostalgia for an older, clunkier era. The board game the boys play, and the rampaging robot that attacks them, look like they could have been made in the '50s, or even the '30s; meanwhile, the Zorgons are not computer-generated models but animatronic puppets designed by Stan Winston (of The Terminator fame).
But the film itself is somewhat clunky, too, and not always in a charming way. The editing and the rhythm often seem a bit off; characters react to surprise revelations a fair bit slower than they ought to, and a gag involving the robot's shadow drags just long enough for us to figure out the punchline in advance. In another scene, two characters stop and stare at each other, despite the urgency of their situation, for no immediately discernible reason; we know this moment is significant because the camera comes in on both their faces, but we don't find out why it's significant until long after we've forgotten all about it.
The acting, too, tends to be a little stiff, or else a bit too obvious, though the actors may be constrained by the fact that their characters don't always act all that plausibly, even once we allow for the fantastical nature of this story and the childish nature of its protagonists. What do you think the child of two recently divorced parents would want, if he could have just one wish come true? It probably isn't what the child in this movie wishes for.
Then again, there are times when the characters seem awfully plausible indeed. During one of their childlike tiffs, Danny stubbornly decides to make himself some dinner, and Walter predicts that the sink and the stove won't work in space. Walter, of course, wants to undermine his brother's confidence, but as it happens, he is wrong, and this gives Danny an opportunity to be smug, too. Incidentally, the movie never explains why these objects do, in fact, work—or where the electricity comes from, or why gravity still holds everything down on the floor, etc., etc.—but it's smart enough to have wondered about such things.
All told, Zathura is a reasonably diverting bit of family entertainment. Some sequences may be a little scary for particularly young children, and the language the boys use is occasionally a tad crude—though it's tamer than, say, the language in E.T. (the movie Favreau says he turned to for inspiration), and their dad does call them on it. But for those who love the majesty of the solar system, the thrill of space battles, and the adventure of finding secret passageways in old houses, this movie should be just the ticket.Discussion starters
- The film emphasizes how brothers need to rely on each other. Can you single out specific ways in which it makes this point? What does the film say about the relationship between brothers and sisters? Do they need each other too?
- If you could have just one wish come true, what would it be? Do you believe the scene in which one of the boys is given this opportunity is believable? What do you think he might have wished for instead, at that point?
- Would you have let the astronaut stay in your house, even though he was eating all your food and using up all your supplies? Why do you think he waited before telling them his story? If you were the astronaut, would you have told your story earlier than he did?
- Were you scared of the basement, or of tight spaces, when you were young? What other sorts of things did you find scary? Do you think Danny conquers his fears in a believable way? How do you think stories like this help children to deal with their fears?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
Zathura is rated PG for fantasy action and peril, and some language. The children use words and phrases like "Oh my God," "bee-yatch," and a four-letter word for the male anatomy, though their father does correct them on at least that last occasion. The children and their house are attacked by robots, spaceships, lizard-like space pirates and astronomical objects, most of which are not particularly realistic, though very young viewers might be scared. One child also accuses the other of causing their parents' recent divorce.
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Copyright © 2005 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.compiled by Jeffrey Overstreet
from Film Forum, 11/17/05
Chris Van Allsburg's children's books are characterized by large, enchanting, imaginative illustrations. But they're not heavy on narrative. Screenwriters don't so much adapt his books as invent narratives that bridge the gaps between the images. Those who enjoyed Robert Zemeckis' The Polar Express or Joe Johnston's Jumanji were probably surprised when they searched out the book and found much of the movie missing from the original text.
John Favreau's Zathura is similarly stuffed with embellishment. And, like the other Van Allsburg-inspired films, it dazzles viewers with wall-to-wall visual effects. But does it offer more than eyefuls of digital animation? Is there anything meaningful in this story of a house that blasts off into outer space? And what about the question on many parents' minds: Is it safe and entertaining for the whole family?
"Zathura is violent and a bit intense in spots (and parents should consider that)," says Steven Isaac (Plugged In), "but because the intensity is used so effectively and toward such a good goal—to teach siblings to stop bickering and start cooperating—it's not what trips me up. My main quibble with Favreau is that he chose to include a mostly extraneous teenage daughter who derisively disrespects her dad, and he injected a couple of insulting crudities—spoken by kids. Those things aren't necessary."
Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films) compares it to E.T. as well, and says, "E.T. was raw with grief over the breakup of the parents' marriage. Dad was a scoundrel for having abandoned his family and gone to Mexico with his new girlfriend, and Mom was just barely holding it together. … Zathura, by contrast, is a family film for the no-fault divorce age. One week it's three days with Dad, four days with Mom, the next week vice versa; the boys aren't crazy about it, but it's just the way things are. Regrettably, that's reality for far too much of the film's target audience; even the children of intact homes know children in Danny and Walter's situation."
Greydanus is displeased with "the utterly unsympathetic portrayal of Walter, and the one-note sourness of his treatment of Danny, for three-quarters of the running time. Like the book, Zathura is ostensibly about quarreling siblings learning to deal with their differences and get along, but Walter is so unsympathetic and lacking in affection for Danny that the inevitable rapprochement is too little, too late."
"Zathura falls short of the ideal family film," declares Stephen McGarvey (Crosswalk). "Ten-year-old boys will likely love it, whereas their parents will be checking their watches. They will wonder what in the world is tying all the random sequences of destruction together, besides a magic board game with an unpronounceable name."
Bob Rossiter (Christian Spotlight) offers much more enthusiasm for the film, calling it "one of the best movie adaptations of a children's book I've seen. … The acting is good and the special effects excellent."
Cliff Vaughn (Ethics Daily) says, "If Jumanji wasn't your cup of tea, give Zathura a chance. Director Jon Favreau … is proving he can deliver the goods. … He has fashioned another PG flick that parents and children can enjoy together. It's wonder-inducing for all ages, and the timing of the jokes certainly helps sell it for adults."
Mainstream critics are enjoying the game.