Fraternal Space Journey Has Game
As hard-to-pronounce movie titles go, Zathura rates a 7 on a scale of 1 to 10. Based on the children's book by Chris Van Allsburg, author of Jumanji and The Polar Express, the film itself scores just about the same.
Danny (Jonah Bobo) and Walter (Josh Hutcherson) are two squabbling brothers aged six and ten competing for their divorced father's attention. Walter does his utmost to diminish his younger sibling, especially with regard to his athletic ability, and Danny appears to have the edge intellectually.
One Saturday afternoon they're playing catch with dad (Tim Robbins) in front of his vintage, Craftsman-style home. A graphic designer, he's squeezing in some quality time before an important meeting and is constantly forced to play referee. Danny seeks reassurance that he's got as much going for him as the bullying Walter, who thinks his sensitive baby bro gets all the attention.
The stage is set for the boys' strengths to be reversed after they're launched on a humorous and frightening journey into the stratosphere courtesy of a retro board game. When they accidentally ruin one of his drawings while fighting, Dad pops out to the office, leaving them in the care of their teenage sister Lisa (Kristen Stewart) who's still asleep at two in the afternoon. All she cares about is her date that night--what she refers to as a "hook-up" at the mall, much to her father's alarm.
The boys' bickering escalates over the TV clicker (Sports Center versus SpongeBob Squarepants) and Walter terrorizes Danny by sending him to the scary basement. Danny emerges with a dusty board game from the 1950s called Zathura. Walter dismisses it as "dumb and old." He couldn't be more wrong.
Danny starts to play and the entire house takes off into space. They soon learn they must play the game to the end to have any chance of things returning to normal. Each turn results in a card being spit out warning of an impending danger or instructing the player to complete a task. Among the dangers are a meteor shower, a malicious robot, and flesh-eating, lizard-like aliens called Zorgons.
The house is thoroughly ransacked, totaled in a way that will break the heart of any architectural historian. But this is a family film, the type of fantasy where everything must be made whole. Both the charming edifice and the testy relationship between siblings will be made right.
Danny proves his mettle by saving the day and Walter gets in touch with his feelings and realizes he truly loves his little brother. Enforcing the idea this is a boy's own adventure, Lisa is kept frozen in a cryonic state for most of the journey. The only adult they encounter is an astronaut (Dax Shepard) whose identity proves to be a surprise.
Allsburg's book becomes a spirited film about fraternal bonds and bravery thanks to the engaging young actors, who aren't too cutesy or actorly, and director Jon Favreau, who handles the family dynamics and special effects with aplomb. Favreau is known for his acting, writing (Swingers), and schmoozing with Hollywood types on his TV show Dinner for Five. The success of his Will Ferrell vehicle Elf ensured he would have more shots at directing, and this entertainment should keep his career on track.
Zathura represents an old-fashioned -- that is, early to mid-20th century -- idea of adventure. The title sequence, taken from the markings on the metal game itself, and the style of the alien craft they encounter are reminiscent of Flash Gordon. The message about siblings respecting one another isn't pressed too hard. And a flying house is an archetypal, Jungian fantasy, a primal wish that is to be feared and desired. Younger children will certainly be frightened at times.
The script contains amusing and authentic sibling banter. The film's major flaw: because the action is confined to one location, Zathura seems to keep going and going. But that's a price worth paying to revive interest in board games that require imagination.
(Released by Columbia Pictures and rated "PG" for fantasy violence/peril and some languate.)