Directed by Jon Favreau. Starring Jonah Bobo, Josh Hutcherson, Dax Shepard, Kristen Stewart, Tim Robbins, Frank Oz, John Alexander, Derek Mears. (2005, PG, 113 min.)
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Nov. 11, 2005
With his follow-up to Elf, actor-turned-director Jon Favreau sticks with family-friendly filmmaking, this time taking on the film version of Chris van Allsburg’s bestselling children’s book Zathura. Van Allsburg’s slim but well-illustrated books have been recast as large-scale, kids adventure films (Jumanji, The Polar Express), perhaps so appealing in Hollywood because they come with ready-made storyboards (even though Zathura needed screenwriters David Koepp and John Kamps to expand its slender story). Zathura succeeds in a way that neither of the previous van Allsburg film adaptations managed: It’s infused with a greater sense of fun and realism. Favreau keeps the picture throttling forward with a carefree charm that offers opportunities for emotional involvement and detachment. It’s a space adventure that goes forth with a Buck Rogers attitude as silly gizmos, robots, and monsters turn from mildly goofy to dangerous and threatening in the blink of an eye – or the delivery of an instruction card from the dusty old Zathura game that young Danny (Bobo) finds in the basement. Bickering brothers Danny and Walter (Hutcherson) are left at home while their dad (Robbins) runs to the office to retrieve some materials the boys have accidentally ruined while fighting. The simplicity and look of this strange board game, which is made out of pressed tin, adds to the retro feel of the movie. The game spits out instruction cards with cryptic messages that generally presage some dire occurrence. One such event turns their teenage sister/babysitter (Stewart) into a block of ice for five turns (which conveniently allows the filmmakers to cart around a life-sized girl in pink sleeping shorts for much of the movie, a bonus for the adolescent boys who may think themselves too old to want to see this movie). Eventually, an odd astronaut (Shepard) comes along who allows the story to tie up its sentimental theme about eternal brotherhood. Comic actor Shepard seems a bit of a stretch in the role, but it’s nice to see Zathura try something different than the big star turns of Robin Williams and Tom Hanks in the previous van Allsburg outings. Robbins is solid as this film’s divorced dad trying to balance the differing needs of his squabbling 10-year-old and 6-year-old with his work responsibilities. His impeccable Mission-style home is utterly trashed by the space adventure, which uproots the house and its foundation and hurtles it through space Oz-style. The tone of the fantasy and the effects are just right: enough to surprise and startle everyone and even spook the littlest ones, but so gleefully defiant of the laws of physics and aeronautics that it’s clear the film’s only objective is to have a good time. Favreau continues to show a real flair for concocting worlds that persuasively blend the real and the fantastic, a talent that should serve him well on his next project, the film adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars.