Jumanji in Outer Space
Playing a game described by Chris Van Allsburg in one of his children’s books can be risky business indeed. The movie version of Jujmanji brought scary wild animals to life ten years ago, and now Zathura sends an entire house hurtling through outer space -- much to the dismay of two young boys who realize they must continue playing in order to return home safely. Unfortunately, although filled with amazing set pieces and a strong sense of adventure, Zathura soon becomes annoying to watch because of almost continuous yelling by the bickering brothers.
Still, there’s a valuable message here about cooperation and how important it is for family members to take care of each other. Tim Robbins, who plays the distracted father in Zathura, claims this family dynamic was one of the things that drew him to the script. “For the fantasy to work, it has to come out of a believable situation,” he says. “There have to be issues like in any great family movie. There has to be a path the family must take to discover, to evolve, to change.”
The film’s “issues” become clear as 6-year-old Danny (Jonah Bobo) struggles to get his older brother, 10-year-old Walter (Josh Hutcherson) to pay attention to him after their busy father receives a call back to work one afternoon. They’re left in the care of Lisa (Kristen Stewart), their self-absorbed teenage sister, which means they are basically on their own.
It doesn’t take long for Walter and Danny to get on each other’s nerves. They squabble over everything, and Walter starts chasing Danny all over the house, finally lowering him to the basement in a dumbwaiter. While in the basement, Danny finds an old board game called “Zathura: A Space Adventure.” Taking it upstairs, he persuades a reluctant Walter to play the game with him.
Both boys are shocked when real meteors crash through the roof after the first card stating “Meteors. Take evasive action” is drawn. Obviously, this is no ordinary game. As their house is propelled through outer space, Walter and Danny face a crazed robot, a stranded astronaut (Dax Shepard) and a fleet of hideous meat-eating Zorgons. They also -- accidentally -- put their sister into a cryogenic sleep. And more importantly, they learn to respect each other.
One of the problems with a movie like this results from a lack of full-blown suspense. Most viewers know the kids will be okay -- no matter how many incredible obstacles they face because it’s only a game. However, individual sequences, such as the section showing the boys being chased by that relentless robot or trying to outsmart those fierce Zorgons, do offer a few thrills and excitement.
Hutcherson (Kicking & Screaming) and Bobo (Around the Bend) deliver believable performances, but I wish director Jon Favreau (Elf ) had toned down their constant shouting at one another. Although Robbins (Oscar winner for Mystic River) appears too briefly, he’s quite convincing as a father who’s not sure how to handle his own kids. Having fun with the distant big sister role, Stewart (Panic Room) proves she can do comedy as well as drama. But it’s Shepard (Without a Paddle) who surprised me the most with a standout turn as the humorous and heroic astronaut; I found his twangy voice and comforting screen presence quite appealing.
Zathura may not be in the same class with space adventures like the Star Wars franchise, but many youngsters will probably enjoy taking this inter-galactic journey with Walter and Danny. Adults, however, should bring earplugs along.
(Released by Columbia Pictures and rated “PG” for fantasy action and peril and some language. Reviewed after the Sneak Preview of November 5, 2005.)