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Zathura (2005) Print E-mail
Friday, 11 November 2005
“Zathura” is another adaptation of a children’s book written and illustrated by Chris Van Allsburzg. Like “Jumanji” and “The Polar Express,” the original book consisted of 14 large illustrations with 14 pages of text. Not a lot to draw from in making a feature-length film, and all three of the Van Allsburg movies so far have demonstrated the stresses and strains of trying to fill in enough story for a feature.

The strain was less in “Jumanji” partly because in the earlier movie, the director could cut to Robin Williams when in need of more stuff. That’s not true in “Zathura,” and the movie runs out of material before it runs out of time.

Still, the first half of the film is surprisingly inventive and involving; Josh Hutcherson and Jonah Bono, the two boys who play the leading roles, are both good kid actors, usually very natural, very believable. However, Bono is occasionally given lines that are painfully too old for a six-year-old—“Do we have an understanding?” is just one example.

The boys, Walter (Hutcherson) and Danny (Bono), live with their divorced father (Tim Robbins) in a grand if creaky old craftsman-style house (the movie’s only setting). Walter is twelve and very contemptuous of his younger brother, who keeps declaring he’s not a baby right after doing something that indicates he is. Danny is certain his father favors Walter. Each boy overhears their dad talking to the other in terms that confirm their worst suspicions, so by the time the father has to leave to pick up something at work even though it’s Saturday, the boys are left to fend for themselves—and to pick on each other.

Their teenage sister Lisa (Kristen Stewart) is just where she wants to be—upstairs in her room asleep, well away from her annoying brothers. Walter, exasperated with Danny, just wants to watch TV, especially after he angrily chases the younger boy away. Feeling left out of everything, Danny takes refuge in his favorite hiding place, a dumbwaiter, and lowers himself to the basement, hoping to find something fun to do.

Just as he’s preparing to leave, he catches sight of a box labeled “Zathura.” The art on the box resembles the 1920s-1930s science fiction magazine cover art of Frank R. Paul, and Danny is instantly captivated. Zathura is a game with a metal playing field and tiny rockets that move along tracks cut in the tin.

He rushes upstairs with his treasure, but can’t induce Walter to play, so he begins the game himself. This involves pushing a button and taking a card that pops up while his game piece, one of the rockets, advances a few spaces. The card reads “Meteor Shower—Take Evasive Action.”
No sooner has Danny read the car that tiny meteors indeed do start crashing through the house, punching holes in the ceiling and the floor (and the card). It takes a moment for the boys to realize this is real danger, so they take evasive action, zig-zagging around, winding up in the fireplace.

When the meteors stop, they open the front door—and find Saturn’s rings and the planet itself. Their house is now in outer space, orbiting along one of the outer rings of Saturn. Not for nothing is the game subtitled “an outer space adventure.”
Walter figures that to get back home, they have to finish playing the game, but of course, this has its own problems: each card immediately comes true. A reference to a robot brings a small, toy-like mechanical man—who immediately grows to eight feet tall and, declaring that he must destroy hostile aliens, pursues Walter about the house, smashing through walls and doorways.

They wake up their sister and try to explain the game to her (in one of the movie’s best scenes), but another card freezes everything in her bathroom: frozen towels, frozen toilet paper, frozen sister….

One disaster follows another, but there’s some form of hope. A card that refers to a lost astronaut brings one (Dax Shepard) to their front door, complete with space suit. He becomes their ally at once; he himself had played the game with his brother when he was a boy, and made a bad choice. His brother disappeared, and he’s stuck in the game. The astronaut helps them battle large lizard-like carnivorous aliens, but he can’t help much when, as the game pieces approach the planet Zathura, the planet’s powerful gravitational pull begins working on the battered house.

“Zathura” benefits greatly from the warm, rich production design of J. Michael Riva; the colors are strong and deep, and the house is especially handsome—you almost wince when the meteors, robot and other perils damage it. The sound is also used imaginatively, especially in an early scene when surround so unexpectedly kicks in from the right rear that you can see heads in the auditorium turning to see where it’s coming from.

The meteor shower scene and the wildly destructive, determined robot feature in the movie’s best scenes; they’re exciting, well staged and both suspenseful and very funny.

But the script by David Koepp & John Kamps diminishes in invention as the movie proceeds. Director Favreau (“Elf”) can’t keep up the energy, and you might find yourself wishing you could put the movie back its box and stick it on a shelf to play sometime later. At 113 minutes, it’s just too long for a movie of this nature; it’s too bad they didn’t whittle it down to 90 minutes.

Children will be delighted by the first half of the film, but like those at the press screening, will probably start to squirm after an hour has passed. They’ll like the two boys, of course—so will you—but the astronaut is blandly presented and the sister’s role never amounts to much. Tim Robbins is an ingratiating actor, but he disappears after ten minutes or so.

I’m not sure why so many children’s story tellers feel that kids’ fiction has to have A Moral. It’s patronizing and rarely fools the kids, who just want to get to the good stuff as soon as possible, never mind the message. Of recent children’s authors, Daniel Manus Pinkwater and, yes, J.K. Rowling understand what kids really want. All that Moral and Uplifting stuff is in there for the parents, so they’ll see that this book or movie is good for their kids, like a dose of sugary medicine. Mary Poppins said a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down, but aren’t kids sometimes entitled to the sugar without the medicine?

Here, the moral is depressingly obvious: brothers should care for one another, support each other, be partners in life. Even the lost astronaut has his part to play in this Big Message. The writers and Favreau perhaps should have soft-pedaled this in favor of the special effects—and there are plenty—thrills and laughs, but it keeps coming back.

Nonetheless, there really are a lot of laughs, thrills and special effects. The movie doesn’t talk down to kids at all, but observes the world (and outer space) from a kids’ perspective. It’s too long, it’s a bit too preachy, but most of the time, “Zathura” delivers a lot of fun and games.

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