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"Boldly goes where no board game has gone before."
"The downside, however, is that 'Zathura' lacks compelling, sustainable drama."
"Triumphs over 'Jumanji' in spirit, mixing in the right amounts of zest and cheer."
Zathura  

Cast

Walter: Josh Hutcherson INTERVIEW
Danny: Jonah Bobo
Dad: Tim Robbins
Astronaut: Dax Shepard
Lisa: Kristen Stewart
Robot: Frank Oz
Review November 2005

Adventure is indeed waiting for those brave enough to wind up and spin. Based on the children's book by Chris Van Allsburg, "Zathura," follows in the footsteps of "Jumanji," a story whose central character is a magical board game - one that takes its players beyond the two dimensional surface and into another world, full of interactive creatures and chaos. Unlike "Jumanji," which engaged its participants in a wild jungle-like safari, "Zathura" takes its players into the depths of outer space. In the film, two young brothers are pulled into an unforgettable adventure when a mysterious game transforms their house into a space ship. Hurtling around the galaxy, the boys face a variety of challenges from unexpected meteor showers to malfunctioning robots and destructive Zorgons. All on their way toward completing the game and finding their way back home. Directed by Jon Favreau, the actor turned filmmaker whose previous work "Elf" hit a cheerful note, "Zathura" offers plenty of family fun. Full of enthusiastic action and child friendly thrills, it boldly goes where no board game has gone before.

For twelve-year old Walter Budwing and his younger brother, Danny, life was one big sibling rivalry - who could run the fastest, who could throw the farthest, and who could catch every fly ball. Much of the competition could be attributed to the fact that their parents were divorced and rarely had time to spend with them. At least, that was the case at this moment, as their father leaves them alone in the house for a few hours, supervised only by their teenage sister, Lisa, whose idea of supervision is lying in bed beneath the covers while listening to music. With the house all to themselves, Walter and Danny engage in a game of hide and seek. The game is short lived as Walter finds Danny hiding in the dumbwaiter and sends him all the way down into the dark and scary basement. There, Danny musters up enough courage to find his way back upstairs. But along the way, he discovers a colorful game known as "Zathura."

Danny tries to get Walter to play the game with him, but Walter is too preoccupied with sports on television. So, Danny decides to play by himself. He assembles the game and takes his first spin. The game churns and moves the miniature spaceships the appropriate spaces forward. And shortly thereafter, it spits out a card. Unable to read, Danny asks Walter to read it for him. "Meteor shower. Take evasive action." Just then, meteors sizzle through the floorboards and explode through the house, tearing it to shreds. The boys run for cover and hide in the fireplace until the storm subsides. But by then, much of the home's interior is in disarray. And when Walter takes a peak outside, he is shocked by what he sees. Unable to comprehend the situation at hand and with no other recourse, the boys decide to play through the game until all is safely restored.

Adapted to the big screen by David Koepp and John Kamps, "Zathura" works as a smart, kid friendly space adventure. Based on the story by Chris Van Allsburg, who also inked and illustrated "The Polar Express," "Zathura" goes where many mindless action adventures sustained by pointless CGI fail to go. The story has a purpose and it succeeds as a series of puzzles and challenges that the kids must solve in an effort to finish their game and get home. Much like its predecessor, "Jumanji," there are plenty of bells and whistles, instructions and warnings, and carefully rigged mechanics. But where they differ is in their tone. "Zathura" is noticeably lighter, treating its subject matter with a carefree exuberance.

The film was directed by Jon Favreau, who first emerged as a serious filmmaker in 1996 with "Swingers," an underground hit that featured a group of L.A. hipsters (and an up and coming Vince Vaughn) and their attempts to pick up girls and find employment all the while obsessing over the simpler times from the rat pack days. A few years later, Favreau followed it up with a tale of aspiring mobsters in "Made," also starring Vaughn. But unlike both "Swingers" and "Made," where each character pretends to be cool or pretends to be something or someone else, "Zathura" features characters without any kind of artificiality. Instead, the characters are real, they exhibit brotherly quarrels, and yet, they stick together when the going gets tough. It's the situations that lend themselves to imagination. And here, Favreau is adept at presenting all with joyful simplicity; in particular, the absurd space age imagery that flourished so well in the Flash Gordon action/adventure days.

Going beyond the classic look, at the center of the film's appeal, is the honest portrayal of a brotherly rivalry. Not to mention the never-ending struggle to escape boredom. Depicted by Jonah Bobo and Josh Hutcherson, both Walter and Danny bicker and annoy one another in an effort to gain the upper hand. And the actors make it easy to empathize. For instance, maybe you've done something regrettable, as when Walter lowers Danny into the basement? Or perhaps you've tossed a ball at an unsuspecting sibling, as Danny does to Walter? Regardless of the action, the effect is not to harm, only antagonize. And this becomes obvious as the film progresses without offering any explanations as to "why" things happen and "how" Danny and Walter seem immune to the dangers. Grounded in reality, the game becomes an equalizer, allowing both brothers the opportunity to exhibit strengths and weaknesses and ultimately, gain a greater respect for one another.

The downside, however, is that "Zathura" lacks compelling, sustainable drama. Even though the brothers are depicted with the right touch, there still seem to be a few missing ingredients. For starters, there is no central authority figure, an adult character that steers the ship and earns our trust. In other words, there is no Robin Williams or Bonnie Hunt to lend credence to the children's dilemma. Rather, Tim Robbins appears only as an absentee father, a divorcee still struggling with work and family. And the children are practically on their own, even with the astronaut (portrayed by Dax Shepard), who is revealed to be more or less a lost child rather than an adult.

Additionally, there are no repercussions for anything that happens. The house flies through space without oxygen, meteors rip through the floorboards without significant damage, and the children escape unscathed every time. This, of course, is contrary to the threat of death and destruction ever present in "Jumanji," from a crazed gunman to a house-bursting flood to a stifling stampede. Such events weigh heavier because not only are they are felt by the participants, but by those unaffiliated with the game - a police officer, a realtor, a department store clerk, etc. But in "Zathura," everything is conveniently self-contained and inconsequential.

Unsurprisingly, the interpretation of Van Allsberg's second installment isn't nearly as engaging as the first. Partly because it lacks an emotional core, partly because it lacks engaging drama. Yet, it triumphs over "Jumanji" in spirit, mixing in the right amounts of zest and cheer. And that is all due to the creative direction of Jon Favreau. After all, knowing that the boys are not going to get hurt is what makes it an appealing adventure for the whole family. Adequately putting purpose into predicament, the story has resolve as the brothers learn and grow in a positive way. And they realize that no matter the circumstance, as brothers they must stick together. Even if they are in a galaxy far, far away.



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