| November 13, 2005

These days, it is not enough that family films simply function as entertaining diversions. They must also teach some sort of valuable life lesson, leaving the children in the audience with something positive to mill over once they’ve left the theater. So it should come as no real surprise that there is a clear moral objective to Zathura, Jon Favreau’s all-ages fantasy adventure. Essentially a spin-off of Jumanji, it tells the story of Danny (Jonah Bobo) and Walter (Josh Hutcherson), two brothers who stumble upon a magic board game that transports their entire house into outer space. They face a multitude of elaborate obstacles, from killer robots to alien invaders, yet none of these dangers prove as difficult to overcome as a simple case of sibling rivalry. Extolling the virtues of brotherly love, the film thus teaches its pre-adolescent viewers the importance of respecting and cherishing one’s brother, be he older and bossy or younger and whiney.
Will Danny and Walter be able to look past their differences and work together to find a way home? The answer to that question should be fairly obvious, yet Zathura isn’t really preachy or predictable. Like its predecessor, it is a slick, lively piece of Spielberg Lite entertainment.
The film spends its first twenty minutes efficiently establishing the tension between six-year-old Danny and ten-year-old Walter as they vie for the attention of their overwhelmed, recently divorced father (a game Tim Robbins). Once dad has left, though, the boys quickly unleash a Pandora’s Box of sci-fi mayhem through the discovery of a 50s-era space adventure board game. Zathura takes place entirely within the confines of the family’s house, but the action never feels restricted by these spatial boundaries, probably because the film is a never-ending cascade of inventive, eye-popping special effects. Working from a lean script by David Koepp (the Go To Guy for modern Spielbergian fantasy), Favreau deftly balances fluid action set pieces with smaller moments of real conflict between Danny and Walter. After this and Elf, the director has practically cornered the market on above-average family fare.
Zathura’s gee-whiz, retro-futuristic aesthetic is hardly its own innovation; Buzz Lightyear got there ten years ago. Also, its visual treats (including an eight-foot-tall android and a race of lumbering lizard men called Zargons) are hand-me-down marvels of space age pulp fiction. The film, in other words, is a hodge-podge of science fiction clichés. Yet Favreau and company play off of these familiar conventions well, creating a child’s fantasy world from bits and pieces of iconic sci-fi cinema and literature. The movie doesn’t have the elemental thrills of Jumanji–robots and meteor showers just can’t compete with the worldly terror of a ferocious lion or giant, poisonous insects–but it is still surprisingly effective.
What gives Zathura its real charm, though, are the down-to-earth performances (no pun intended) of its pint-sized stars. Both Bobo and Hutcherson are totally natural actors, and their matter-of-fact reactions to the chaos happening around them is refreshingly genuine. Without them, the film would be a weightless exercise in visual stimuli; in other words, your average family-oriented dreck. As it stands, though, Zathura is fairly smart and entertaining, a modest success that should hold over its target audience until Harry Potter opens later this week.
Oh, and one last note: when forcing a love-thy-brother message down kids’ throat, it helps if the messenger can speak their language. Dax Shepard of Punk’d shows up late in the film as a lost astronaut who teaches the boys the importance of supporting each other and working as a team, all the while sustaining a nonchalant, vaguely rebellious attitude. That this slacker goofball is both the film’s primary comic relief and its moral backbone is a testament to good casting-against-type. Sometimes all it takes is a little sugar to make the medicine go down.

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