Giddy with imagination and flush with fresh, inviting visuals Zathura flies into theaters. It’s the new movie from Elf director Jon Favreau, who continues exploring the world of family entertainment with his take on evil, magic board games. His movie is based on the book “Zathura”, written by children’s author Chris Van Allsburg. Van Allsburg also wrote the story on which the 1995 movie Jumanji was based, which explains the similarities, though Zathura is not a Jumanji sequel.
The film begins with one of the most creative title sequences of the year. Favreau’s camera zooms in, around, and through the movie’s titular game, racing across the mechanical board like a rocket, and making the metal and cardboard device itself look as though it has come wonderfully alive. Silly and simple though that short bit of credits may be, it’ll make you feel like a kid again.
Zathura then opens on two brothers, fighting and bickering as brothers do. Dad (Tim Robbins) has to go to work, and leaves them in the charge of their sleeping sister Lisa (Kristen Stewart). In the midst of their bickering, the boys stumble on a strange board game called “Zathura” hidden away in the basement of their father’s newly purchased, old and creaky house. They drag it out and play, only to discover that it’s a little more than a game. Like Jumanji before it, this game turns their spins into reality. Youngest brother Danny (Jonah Bobo) gets a card saying “Meteor shower, take evasive action”, and realizes that evading (or in his case running around in panicky circles) might indeed be a good idea. Their entire home is flung into space, and assaulted by burning, flying rocks. If they want to get back to Earth, they’ll have to play their way through Zathura and win. Look for a lawsuit from Milton-Bradley if they somehow end up dead.
Favreau’s film avoids the crass, cheap jokes that sometimes plague lesser family flicks in an attempt to create something truly timeless. His cast drives the movie, with great performances from child actors Jonah Bobo as the youngest and Josh Hutcherson as his 10-year-old brother Walter. Kristen Stewart players their oldest sibling Lisa, and though her role is relatively minor by comparison, the 15-year-old actress makes a big impression. Expect great things from her in the future. What works best is the dynamic between this family of characters. They fight, they bicker, their big sister is disinterested. The chemistry between them has an authentic feel, even if sometimes their reaction to what’s going on around them doesn’t. More on that in a moment.
The big surprise here is Dax Shepard, as an astronaut brought into their house by the game. His career so far has been littered with crass comedic roles in which he goes for obvious jokes and hangs out with less-than-talented people like Ashton Kutcher. In Zathura, he turns out to be the real spirit of the movie, a gentle guide, mentor, and wise-ass friend to the kids.
Any problems with the film come not from the actors or Favreau’s direction, but from the script which never quite lives up to the energy being brought to it. In between the big, frantic effects moments, some of the story falls flat, and the legitimately funny jokes are too few and far between. Worse is the unrealistic way characters (even kids) react to what’s happening around them. It’s that standard movie reaction, the one where nobody’s really stops to question what’s going on, and as a result the pic does a lousy job of explaining it to the audience. That leaves Zathura at times confusing, particularly the ending where everything is resolved with a sparkling glow that still, after hours of mental re-creation, I can’t figure out.
Luckily for screenwriters David Koepp and John Kamps, the kids watching this movie aren’t likely to stop and question any of that. They’ll be too entranced by the movie’s stunning visuals to trip in all the unexplained nonsense. Favreau has gone out of his way to avoid using CGI for most of his effects, and the result is absolutely eye-popping. The sets and characters have a gorgeous kind of realistic weight that you just can’t get with CGI, a deep authenticity to them that’s warm and exciting. It’s a beautiful film, a return to movie-making craftsmanship that’s gone by the wayside in a wave of cubicle nerds carelessly rendering spaceships on their Apple computers. Favreau’s next movie is a massive sci-fi epic based on the Edgar Rice Burroughs novels “John Carter of Mars”; let’s hope he’ll continue finding ways to use dazzling, computer-free effects.
With the holidays approaching and Harry Potter carrying a PG-13, Zathura could well end up being the big family movie of the fall season. It’s a fun movie, but one that misses greatness by rote of a flawed, confusing narrative. Parents my leave befuddled by the sometimes careless plot, but Zathura will fire up their kids’ imaginations. It’ll never be considered the family classic that Jon Favreau’s Elf already is, but Zathura’s an entertaining way to spend a movie-going weekend.