10-year old Walter (Josh Hutcherson) is always bickering with his kid brother, six-year-old Danny (Jonah Bobo). Their parents recently divorced and their dad (Tim Robbins) is always working, even on Saturday. When he has to go into the office, instead of paying attention to the boys, Walter takes things to the next level, locking Danny in an old dumbwaiter and sending him down to the dark, scary basement. But, the youngster finds an old board game hidden under the stairs and tries to get Walter to play “Zathura: A Space Adventure.”
Walter, of course, wants nothing to do with Danny or the game so the little guy decides to play by himself. He turns the key on the old tin board game, hits the start button and one of the two tiny spaceships moves, by itself, on its track. Then, a card spews from a slot. It says: “METEOR SHOWER – Take evasive action.” Danny shows the card to his bored older brother when, suddenly, something comes crashing through the ceiling and leaves a smoldering hole in the floor. The whole room erupts as countless burning projectiles rain down upon the boys. They follow the advice on the card and hide in the empty fireplace.
The boys look up through the biggest hole in the ceiling and, to their surprise since they know it is daytime, see thousands of stars! They open the front door and, instead of their front yard they look into outer space filled with asteroids. They go back to the game to see if there is any explanation. There is nothing except directions telling they must finish playing to get things back to the way they were. With every turn of the key the tiny rockets make their way across the board and new cards with new instructions keep popping out. Walter and Danny, like it or not, are in the middle of a genuine space adventure. Zathura” is based on the children’s book by Chris Van Allsberg, whose previous adapted works, Jumanji and The Polar Express, were big successes at the box office. But, neither of those film adaptations floated my boat. So, when his latest work came to the screen, I was tempted to just blow it off. I’m very glad that I did not.
At first, the bickering brothers, as realistic as they are (I was number two brother in my family so I know), were more annoying than amusing, Then the space adventure kicks in and “Zathura” takes off into a fun, roller coaster ride that combines action, humor, kick-ass F/X, bad-ass hungry monsters (called Zorgons), a stranded astronaut (Dax Shephard) and a robot gone haywire. The introduction of these wild ideas and characters makes this an entertaining family flick that scores on all fronts.
Josh Hutcherson and Jonah Bobo grow on you as Zathura” unrolls and the adventure builds. Dax Shephard is a likable addition as the stranded astronaut the boys save and who, in turn, is the catalyst that makes them realize they love each other. Kristen Stewart, too, as the brothers’ teenage sister plays it up right, annoyed at having to deal with her siblings to good affect. The evil Zorgons are scary monsters that will frighten the little kids, but in a good, put-your-hands-over-your-eyes-and-watch-through-the-fingers way. Tim Robbins lends a yeoman’s effort to Walter and Danny’s loving dad. Director Jon Favreau made an auspicious and amusing debut with “Swingers.” He entered the pantheon of big league filmmakers with his mega-success, “Elf.” Now, Favreau rises to the challenge to create a sci-fi fantasy family film and does a first rate job in the process. With a first rate script (by David Koepp and John Kamps) in hand, he and his special effects team does an outstanding job in bringing to life the world of “Zathura.” The house, ripped from its secure place on Earth, is the central focus of the story but it is the setting of asteroids, hostile aliens and their deadly spaceships and a giant roiling planet that make this for-all-ages entertainment.
Zathura” is a pleasant surprise that combines action, humor and special F/X in even, balanced portions. There is little slack in the storytelling and the characters are uniformly likable. Mom and dad won’t mind taking the kiddies to this one. I give it a B+.Laura:
Seven year-old Danny is (Jonah Bobo, "Around the Bend") stranded between a hard working Dad (Tim Robbins, "War of the Worlds") who must mete out his time and older brother Walter (Josh Hutcherson, "American Splendor," "Kicking & Screaming"), who cannot be bothered with his 'baby' brother. When Walt banishes Danny to the scary basement, Danny finds an old board game that will not only fill the brothers' empty afternoon, but unite them with a series of dangerous adventures. Danny is the first to turn the key, advancing his tin spaceship towards "Zathura."
Director Jon Favreau ("Elf") looks to have his second holiday hit on his hands with the third of Chris Van Allsburg's children's books ("Jumanji," "The Polar Express") to be adapted for the screen (screenplay by David Koepp, "War of the Worlds" and John Kamps, "The Borrowers"). Far and away more engaging that its predecessor, "Jumanji," "Zathura offers an important lesson for siblings and a more appealing adult game player in Dax Shepard ("Without a Paddle") than "Jumanji's" hyperactive Robin Williams. Space also proves much more fertile ground for an imaginative game than the jungle, especially given the film's superior art direction and special effects.
Danny certainly gets Walt's attention when he begins the game and gets a card which announces 'Meteor shower - take evasive action." The boys are startled to find themselves dodging fiery mini-meteors, which make a significant setback to dad's meticulous restoration of his California Craftsman home. At first Walt blames Danny for getting them into the mess they're in, but as their situations worsen, Walt's the one who knows that their only way out is to continue playing the game. Cranky sister Lisa (Kristen Stewart, "Panic Room," "Cold Creek Manor"), left in charge of the boys by dad, is taken out of the action for most of the play by a move that turns the upstairs bathroom into a cryogenic chamber for five long turns, but their rescue of a stranded Astronaut (Shepard) brings some adult assistance back into their orbit. Just in the nick of time, it turns out, to help face down attacking Zorgons - large, cold-blooded, heat-seeking lizards who eat meat.
"Zathura," it should be noted, may prove too scary for the littler ones - heck, a huge defective robot frightened the heck out of me - but the scares serve a fundamental purpose in addition to their entertainment value. The story is well fleshed out, with careful attention to detail (dad designs fancy cars, machinery just like the boys are about to be up against) and no pandering to a lowest common denominator (a foreshadowing comment about a piano isn't drummed home with repetition).
Favreau gets terrific performances from his young actors. Bobo balances his defensive apologies ('I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry' the terrified pleading he repeats after he messes up) so that Danny never seems like an annoyance but a little boy seeking love and respect from his brother. Hutcherson exudes the self-absorbed coolness ('I'm in the fourth grade. I have a girlfriend. This is what grown up looks like.') of a twelve year-old whose 'tude is justified just enough that he doesn't seem like a total jerk, setting the stage for the compassion that eventually comes to the fore. They're a terrific team.
Favreau also manages a huge number of technical challenges with slick results. Wisely, he and production designer J. Michael Riva ("Stealth") favor retro designs and the tin toy design of the game itself as well as the 50's flavored Robot add warmth to the cold, alien environment of outer space. The filmmakers used every technique available, from miniatures, puppetry and gimbals to computer generated imagery and the mix of old and new perfectly complements the same mix in the film's design. The Craftsman house itself is another character in the film, a preservation of craftsmanship and style just like the board game hidden in its basement. Favreau is able to milk both suspense and humor out of his situations, such as his introduction of the Astronaut. We hear an ominous thunk, thunk outside the front door, quickly followed by the friendly ding-dong of the doorbell, sound and editing cleverly switching our emotional responses. In another cute idea, we see a creature internal to that scary robot that does the bot's self repair - it looks like a Muppet and the Robot is voiced by Frank 'Yoda/Miss Piggy' Oz.
"Zathura" is a terrific kids' film and an exciting space adventure that may find baby boomer parents nostalgic for the old sci-fi flicks of their childhood.
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