This time out we're given a couple of feuding brothers (and their apathetic and sleepy teenage sister) who spend a long opening setting up their rivalry (it's a lot more irritating than touching) for the affections of their work-at-home dad (Tim Robbins). At the point that our boys are left to their own devices Walter (Josh Hutcherson) bullies Danny (Jonah Bobo) into fending for his own entertainment. What he finds in the dank and scary basement of dear old dad's house is a space adventure board game called "Zathura", the point of which is to transport the player through space to the winning jackpot that gives the game its name.
What Danny and Walter don't know is that the game makers mean this boast pretty darned literally. Turn the key, push the button, move the piece take the card and follow the instructions. The scary thing is that each instruction is played out precisely and it isn't long before the boys find themselves deep in space, house, sister and all! To get thier home back home the game must be won, so the kids are forced to play, even as each move puts them in deeper and deeper peril (and their space-borne house into the territory of good hands of All-State). From meteor showers to killer robots (voiced by Frank Oz) to evil flesh-eating lizard aliens, they face them all. Of course, anyone who has seen Jumanji can guess a lot of the rest, right on down to the pop-up character who was trapped in the game years ago (this time in the form of an Astronaut played by Dax Shepard). Naturally once the action gets going, Zathura is packed with fun and is exactly the kind of movie that can take one away with the old imagination.
It's not always enough, however. While nitpicking similarities between Zathura and its sister work is pretty much unfair, the truth is that this one can only suffer from the inevitable comparisons to Jumanji. Aside from the relative predictability there is a lot more of the familiar "because-I-said-so" logic and an over-reliance on both cuteness and "the unknown" to get around the various plot holes. Hutcherson and especially Bobo alternate between pensively silent and raucously loud, hoping that their cute-kid natures can vault far past the demands of their change-on-a-dime characters. Big sister Lisa (Panic Room's Kristen Stewart, growing up fast) makes the most of her screen time, although she spends most of it either sleeping or frozen in cryo-sleep and Shepard's dejected Astronaut does his best to anchor the more childlike moments.
Director Jon Favreau makes an earnest attempt at a space epic here, but never quite captures the wonder that is needed to really sell this. Instead Favreau takes a more by-the-numbers approach to translating the mixed screenplay (by David Koepp and John Kamps) and never allows the characters to truly breathe or ask themselves if they can even believe what's going on. Real-world kids might appreciate it just as well, but it takes a lot more than carefully thrown in milquetoast profanity and the occasional grown-up reference to legitimately pull in the adults who brought them. One quick note... the executive producer of this flick was Peter Billingsley, Ralphie from A Christmas Story. How cool is that? Of course, it might've been cooler if they fought off the evil aliens with an arsenal of Red Ryder 200 shot Range Model Air Rifles with the Compass in the stock and this thing which tells time!
While this might not be the best work of these intrepid folks, this also is never going to be an embarrassment or black mark on their resumes. The reason being, Zathura might not be "great", but it succeeds at what its shooting for and manages to be a lot of fun. This one goes over well as another entry in the Sci-Fi sub-category that brought us Flight of the Navigator and The Last Starfighter. Ten year olds are sure to love it as are all of us who haven't quite let go of their ten-year-old selves. It's also nice to have that feeling that one can still get lost in a game and let the old imagination-bone take over for an hour-forty or so. It's true that computer animation and CGI special effects don't pack the same punch in 2005 than they did when Jumanji hit screens a decade earlier, however, make no mistake, this one looks great and the special effects (credited to the Stan Winston Studio) are supurbly dead on.
Two and One Half Stars out of Five for Zathura. There will be those who let themselves be swept away by this one and just enjoy it, unplugged from the logic-o-matic. That's the best thing to do with this one and those who can will have something to enjoy again and again, right there with Jumanji. To those of you out there, I salute you! I might just be one of you too, because I'll admit, this one is tickles the kiddo in moi. I can't help thinking that it might be more fun to play the darned thing myself though. I tell you, that Chris Van Allsburg has a knack for thinking up games that come true. I wonder if it'd be too darned much to ask for him to base a game on Flesh Gordon... Probably so... let's keep it pure!
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