Zathura (United States, 2005)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Calling Zathura the "space version of Jumanji" wouldn't be far off. Like the 1995 film, this movie is based on a children's book by celebrated author Chris Van Allsburg in which a group of people plays an amazing board game. (Van Allsburg doesn't always write about games - he also penned The Polar Express.) In Jumanji, each turn brought a new herd of stampeding wild animals into a quiet suburban neighborhood. In Zathura, the participants are blasted into outer space and can only return to terra firma once a winner has been declared.

Admittedly, as was the case with Jumanji, the material is a little thin for a full-length feature. Yet director Jon Favreau and screenwriters David Koepp and John Kamps do a better job making the conversion than the creative team behind Jumanji. There's a lot more energy and excitement here and, although the premise is essentially the same, developments seem less forced. A lot of that has to do with character development. In Jumanji, the players were two-dimensional pawns. In Zathura, they're real people. The dialogue in the film is perfect - this is exactly how brothers interact at a certain age.

Walter Budwing (Josh Hutcherson) and his younger brother, Danny (Jonah Bobo), are typical siblings - rivals in almost everything, including capturing the attention of their father (Tim Robbins), who splits his time between playing catch with the boys and working overtime. One Saturday, Dad goes to the office, leaving Walter and Danny behind under the less-than-watchful-eye of their older sister, Lisa (Kristen Stewart). Her cardinal rule: don't wake me unless the house is burning down. While poking around in the basement, Danny finds an old board game called "Zarutha." He wants to play; Walter wants to watch ESPN. But when Danny starts tinkering with the game, strange things happen. A meteor shower devastates the living room. Lisa ends up in cryogenic sleep. An astronaut appears out of nowhere. And the house is in orbit around Saturn. It's a killer view, but it puts the Budwings in danger from the lizard-like Zorgons. The only way back to normalcy is to win the game… provided the board isn't destroyed in one of numerous freak occurrences.

Zathura will work better for younger viewers than older ones. There's not much plot to absorb and there's plenty of action, so this is the kind of spectacle that will appeal to those without long attention spans. For adults, there are moments of genuine suspense, and a nice twist or two (nothing too fancy). The action is standard-order science fiction stuff, but it's handled well by Favreau, so it never feels too derivative. The visuals are eye-popping - lots of pretty scenery and there's never an instance when the CGI comes across as cheap or silly.

There's also a nostalgia element to Zathura. This is a movie for everyone who remembers playing this sort of old, clunky board game. It's vintage '50s, when "high tech" represented a wind-up gadget. Watching the kids play, I was reminded of some of the "treasures" I found in the recesses of a closet in my grandparents' house. The only difference is that when I started tinkering with one of those games, I did not end up in the middle of an intergalactic war.

At the heart of Zathura is the relationship that deepens between the brothers as the movie develops. For Walter, Danny starts out as a pest, always following him around and cramping his style. On more than one occasion, he wishes Danny hadn't been born. Then, sometime during their intergalactic journey, he discovers things he never suspected about his brother. Lisa's presence (curtailed for a while by her cryogenic nap) adds another element to the sibling interaction.

Unlike Jumanji, Zathura is a complete movie-going experience. And it's suitable for the entire family (although young children may be frightened by the Zorgons, who are scary-looking). The simplicity of the plot is a strength and weakness, but Favreau's sure-handed direction does a good job of obscuring how little meat exists on the bones of the story. Zathura is welcome late-year fun for all ages - a pleasant contrast to the nauseating dreck that normally masquerades as family-friendly science fiction. (Clockstoppers, Thunderbirds… need I go on?)

Zathura (United States, 2005)

Run Time: 1:42
U.S. Release Date: 2005-11-11
MPAA Rating: "PG" (Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1